Interactive fiction in the Old World
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Wellentag 4th Nachhexen 2510 IC
The Antrag, a 60ft cargo jig, swings to anchor, coming to rest in a clearing along the banks of the Reik. The line of water against the muddy bank is at its peak, some two hours after the sun had climbed to its zenith. The wind nearly calm, the only thing to do is to come-to and wait for the turn of the tide toward mid-afternoon. The expanse of the river looms invitingly before you. The great deforested plains stretch away toward the south east, where they eventually meet the sky some thirty or more miles back the way you'd come since before dawn. Just visible in the distance is the market town of Wahnfürt, where you'd spent a rain soaked and deeply uncomfortable night some two days prior.
The view along the Reik in both directions is filled with tanned sails. Craft of every size and shape stand at anchor, becalmed along with the Antrag, some fifteen miles shy of your final destination. The sky is dark to the north over Nuln, condensed in to mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the remains of what had been the biggest and arguably greatest human city in the Old World. You'd come this far for your own reasons, leaving behind most of what you'd known before and everything with which you'd shared any physical connection. The journey has been hard. You are all embittered by the experience.
Until the second week of Nachhexen when the air gets thin enough to really hold the cold - the Antrag's skipper Herr Koblentz had assured you - a man can sleep out on deck without freezing himself to death. He'll be alright if he's got a little liquor in him, he'd said. But this year, it seems, the second freeze had come early. The experience had been a shock even to the hardiest among you. Koblentz perhaps fearing reprisal from such a tough looking bunch, handed out some extra blankets and even installed a rusty pot bellied stove on the fore-deck. Cast in the effigy of some long forgotten plutocrat, the stove had eyes for air vents and a mouth where you'd shovelled coal ceaselessly day and night to keep the freezing fog at bay.
Between you now, forged by consequence and tempered by necessity, there exists a bond of suffering. The mutual warmth of bodies pressed together under the lip of the ship's bow, huddled like beggars around the stove, has made you tolerant of each other's yarns and convictions.
Franz, the lanky young Talabeclander, whose uncut locks of dark curly hair and piercing blue eyes shone with an intelligence far beyond his years, had been the first to speak. He'd told you in hushed tones of the night he'd seen the dead literally walk and espoused the virtue of a solid shovel and a stout heart. The laughter had shaken some heat in to your aching bones and broken the ice, figuratively and literally. After that, the now-familiar smell of freshly turned earth that permeated his every fiber, presaged the nightly confessional of the stove. It had become a fixture: surprisingly sincere, you'd all spoken freely of the past, the present and what you hoped for the future. The nightly repose was cold comfort throughout the long sleepless dark. None daring to doze off for fear of never waking. Each of you taking it in turns to tell your tales, you'd kept the long watch between dusk and dawn. Only when the sun peaked over the horizon had any of you allowed sleep to take hold.
Dieter the fisherman, most at home aboard, had bemoaned the end of his simple life in distant Hochland. His accent as harsh as his opinion of the Middenheim Fishing Federation, who'd driven his father to an early grave and his family to diaspora after poisoning their ancestral fishing hole. His easy association with the water rats crewing the Antrag and his impressive skill with a hook and line had kept your belongings un-molested by prying hands and your bellies full. You've all come to appreciate his simple affinity with the waterway and the unerring accuracy of his weather forecasting. At times it seems as if Dieter himself commands the elements, so timely are his warnings of imminent rain, fog, sleet or snow.
The man-trapper, Siegfried, had kept his distance. Hard faced, his ruined nose and stocky, powerfully built frame was effortlessly intimidating. Only when the stove had been installed did he drift closer. He seemed uncomfortable at first, even reticent, but had soon produced a goatskin of what, to your limited palates, tasted like the most exquisite sweet red wine. As it flowed and tongues loosened the Stirlander had inevitably been asked about vintnering and this, above all things, he would speak of. He'd explained to you in his sing-song accent the process of growing the grapes on the great sloping vineyards of his homeland. How the peasants toil for their distant overlords, and of his personal hatred of that uncaring class. None had dared contradict him.
Last to bend to necessity, the Dwarf, Katalin Grotekson, had endured the most of the driving wind and rain alone. Seemingly oblivious to the danger of sleeping exposed, he'd made it through five nights before the scent of roasting trout and the liquour enticed him in to your confederacy of the stove. The flicker from the coke lit up a face as of yet unlined by age and possessing hypnotic eyes of contrasting blue-gold. A jet black beard, only recently grown past the base of his chin, marked him out as a relative adolescent among his own race. His tales, delivered matter of fact in heavily accented Reikspiel of vicious blood letting and unceasing struggle in the dark, shield to shield with his kinsmen against an endless tide of greenskins, left you all mute. None of you had 'seen the ancestors' as he put it, none of you could say with any sincerity that you ever wanted to. His life to your ears has been brutal and hard and his eighty-five years, spent entirely in the underdark of Karak Norn, makes him unfathomably ancient in human terms.
The trip itself had been uneventful. The only excitement in an otherwise frustratingly slow progress had been at the docks of Ärschel, a town twenty miles upriver of Wahnfürt. The pilot had baulked as Franz leaped over the side and waded in to the water after a grey and greasy lump of something that had once been a living being.
The locals, including a number of inquisitive children along the quay, maintained a ghoulish interest in the eccentric foreigner. Even tossing him a grappling hook with which he'd manhandled the thing close enough to be hauled ashore. Pieces of the body fell away in shreds as the children helped him yank it in. The body was so bloated and misshapen that it was impossible to tell anything of age, sex or race about something only vaguely humanoid. The corpse was pestilence personified, but Franz would not be deterred, seemingly oblivious to the risk of disease. "Come on now, lads, don't be shy!" he'd chuntered to the youths who'd thought the spectacle a matter of weekend entertainment. The reek had been so bad that several of them subsequently snuck away to vomit privately.
By mid-afternoon of Wellentag the tide has finally started to surge and the Antrag, set free from it's impromptu mooring, begins to make slow, steady and uneventful progress once again. As dusk settles in, Koblentz pilots the jig masterfully through the narrow inlet and under the ancient overhead walkway that marks the entrance to the Iron Tower. The Tower, the oldest structure in Nuln, stands marooned on a rocky outcrop in the middle of the fast flowing river. Crowned, menacingly, by a great flock of baying ganits that circle their nests among the many weathered machicolations that protrude from the Tower's sheer sides.
As the jig weaves through the dense river traffic toward the Great Bridge that connects the twin walled enclaves of the sprawling city of Nuln called Faulenstadt and Neustadt, the crew let slip the block and tackle securing the boom and the great lengths of wet rope whirr in to life letting the main sail down and slowing the Antrag to a stately crawl. Gulls squaw and swoop in a cocophany of colour and energy as the jig passes under the nearest towering arch of the bridge. The city, on both banks of the Reik, is obscured by a great sixty foot masonry flood wall, re-enforced by flying buttresses and punctuated by a dozen or more towers. More than a few of which appear abandoned or significantly damaged.
Clearing the long shadow of the Great Bridge and ghosting round the last treacherous bend in the Reik, the spiked heads of criminals young and old suddenly leer at you from above the Sudenplatz gatehouse. A great multitude of ravens feast on the banquet of putrefying flesh. Fortunately, the breeze carries the stink upwind and you are spared the full affect. Franz makes the sign of Morr as you pass the grizzly spectacle. The bird's mystique as guardian spirit of the dead, in his mind at least, unquestionable.
Eventually, you sight the docks. A hundred or more vessels lay at rest, secured by a forest of groaning ropes. Dockers bustle as cargo is loaded and unloaded with no concession to the time of day or night. As the Antrag finally makes for a vacant berth, ropes are lashed round massive uprights and the ship is pulled on to the jetty with a great thump. The gangplank is lowered and a crew of burly stevedores immediately set to operating the forty foot timber cranes with practiced efficiency, swivelling and adjusting to the Antrag's deck height with an ease that draws a whistle of appreciation from Katalin.
As cargo begins to be unloaded a flurry of officials and their aides descend on the Antrag and formalities drag on and on. The din of men and materiel is almost deafening. The skipper wobbles past the assembled passengers as you idle furtively on the fore-deck, keen to disembark, heading for the gaggle of officials in their sharp tricorn hats and long black coats with many polished brass buttons. He senses your frustration and bawls at you to be patient while matters are resolved.
Aubentag 5th Nachhexen 2510 IC
It is nearly midnight before you are allowed ashore. A suffocating smog of coal smoke blown in from the great foundries of the Industrie Platz envelops the docklands, blocking out the thin yellow light given off by Mannslieb and obscuring the twin moon of Morrslieb along with most of the rest of the firmament. Only the scattered ship's lights and oil lanterns carried by longshoremen pierce the gloom. More and more sailors, passengers and dock workers pile on to the promenade in a great throng of heaving, stinking bodies and the business of finding a bench and a tapped cask begins in earnest.
Unfamiliar with the layout of the city, your little group is quickly left behind and what establishments you are drawn to through the smog are all full to bursting with rowdy riverboat crews, dockers and other, more unsavoury, clientele. Doormen and patrons alike glare at you through the tabac smoke with equal parts intent and incredulity. As armed foreigners and lubbers you find no hospitality offered or inferred among the inns, flop houses and gin dens.
Only Dieter, with his easy familiarity and river legs, finds his way unbarred. For a time he ducks out of sight down a flight of stairs toward the sound of a distant accordion and high spirited revelry. You all presume that is the last you'll see of the Hochlander but before long he re-appears, sling bag over shoulder, jogging up breathlessly behind the group. Saying nothing, he only shrugs at you and grins. Nobody gives it voice but all are aware that something significant just passed between you. A choice has been made and, together, you trudge onward toward the great avenue of derelict and decrepit tenements that comprise the dockland end of Faulestadt.
An hour after disembarking it begins to rain, an oily drizzle that sticks to your hair and brings with it for the first time the unmistakable stench of massed human habitation. Before long it is cold enough to see your breath and increasingly desperate you find yourselves huddled in the corner of the Kaiserschnitzel, a dimly lit tavern a full twenty minutes walk from the Antrag's mooring.
The common room is packed with filthy natives and harbour workers of every variety. The floor is covered in dank straw and sawdust, alive with vermin that skitter between the pools of spilled beer and rainwater. The windows run with condensation and the vapours of ammonia and sweat and stale beer make you gag, unused to it as you are after so many nights spent in the open air.
A group of what you presume to be custom's officials, middle aged men in black and grey troos, are drinking and playing dice with gusto in the far corner. Next to them two armed men in the black jackets of the harbor watch argue in the local patois with a heavily intoxicated man struggling to maintain a perch on a stool at the bar. On the table opposite, four pale and sickly looking men neglect their drinks in silence, preferring instead to suck greedily on pipes which spew great waves of vile tabac smoke that sticks in your throats and makes your ears and eyes burn.
Behind them, alone, sits a giant of a man in a horseman's strapped tricorn hat. The shadow of the wide brim covering his eyes from view. His right hand nurses a flagon and a well worn saddle rests on the table. His left hand sits at ease on the pommel of a long, curved sword. Several yards of good quality rope are wrapped around his midriff. Over his shoulder, an emaciated woman wearing filthy skirts and what were perhaps once rather dainty roebuck ankle boots hovers in the crowd, jostled by the patrons moving back and forth at the bar. Her long dirty red hair plasters her equally dirty pale face and she makes no effort to conceal her interest in the giant. No doubt a harlot or pick-pocket sizing up her next mark.
As your group debates what to do next and your fingers begin to thaw, things seem to be looking up when a diminutive man in an mud stained overcoat at least two sizes too big sidles over and introduces himself as Grolsch Van Eyke, an ex-pat Marienburger of indeterminate accent. He speaks quickly through pale lips and you struggle to hear him over the rowdy patrons. Something about taking great pity on you, being outlanders like himself, and newly arrived in Nuln like he himself was not so long ago. He flops down on a bench opposite yours and, swigging from a flagon of the foul smelling malt beer everyone seems so fond of, he cautions you that it is unwise to be wandering the city at this hour. Fixing you with bloodshot eyes he rummages in his jacket pocket for a clay pipe, which he labouriously sucks in to life, before adding:
"Giz'za couple of schillings and I'll get you a nice warm room somewhere dry and clean lads."
I am to nerds what nerds are to normal people.
The sound of a screeching chair draws your eyes to the tall man in the corner as he stands up to his full height. The crown of his hat is squashed against the roof, transferring a greasy smear from the tabac residue on the ceiling. The patrons of the Kaisersnitzel nearest to him cast a mixture of envious and hostile glances his way. On bow legs, he hauls his saddle on to this shoulder and the crowd parts instinctively as he pushes to the bar and demands a refill from the keep; a short, bald, grossly obese man with silver bristles and buck teeth.
A plump woman with a gaudily painted face grins and puffs out her ample but saggy chest as he passes. The haggard looking man she was talking to reacts angrily and shouts something at her to which she replies in kind.
The woman by the bar scrapes her lank greasy hair back, rubs at her chin with the cuff of her equally filthy shirt and slips lithely in to the gaps in the crowd made by the big man's progress. Her request for a drink is flatly ignored by the barkeep who's attention is entirely on the giant. "Ten bits, squire," he says filling the man's cup to the brim from a cracked earthenware jug. "Visiting ae yer?" he adds, momentarily drawing the eyes of the two black shirts on the end of the bar, who look him over appraisingly, before continuing their animated discussion with the drunk on the stool.
Over by the door, Grolschs' eyes flicker between Siegfried and Dieter as the man-trapper, holding his left hand in front of his mouth, whispers conspiratorially in Franz's ear.
Dieter speaks for them all: "What makes you think we are new here in Nuln? Leave us be," he barks, before taking a gulp from his flagon.
The Dwarf glares at Grolsch, unblinking. His ale untouched. Only when Dieter breaks the awkward silence does he switch his attention to the red haired woman at the bar.
Grolsch blows smoke and frowns and nods at Katalin before addressing Dieter. "Yer friend alright, there? Errr. Look .. " he squirms, apparently unnerved and knocks back his own ale. "Not trying to stick my nose in. I'm jus trying to help yer out lads. Got a discount with a fräulein over the way. I send her a bit of business, she sends her niece round on Bezahltag for an hour or two in the afternoon. If yer know what I mean, like!" He finds himself highly amusing and cackles energetically.
"If yer not fussed, yer not fussed. Good luck findin a place to kip this time o'er night tho!"
He half shrugs and hauls himself to his feet.
I am to nerds what nerds are to normal people.
Dieter considers the Marienburger and his offer for a few moments before gesturing Grolsch to sit back down. "Couple of schillings, eh? Not far?" he says, reaching up to caress the scruff on his chin.
"It ain't the Kaiser's Palace, if yer know what I mean," says Grolsch apologetically. "But it'll see yer right warm n' dry." He pauses for thought before adding: "How about eighty bits between the four of yer, sound fair?"
Grolsch smiles a gummy smile. He pointedly avoids looking at Katalin whom he seems to have taken against, taps his pipe out on the table top and shoos the oily residue on to the floor. "Whenever yer ready lads. I can see yer probably want to talk it over. No rush, I've got a schilling on the dice and could use a top up me'self." He stands and, pocketing his pipe, heads over to the counter.
As the little man vanishes in to the crowd, Franz leans in close to Dieter and whispers softly: "He'd better not trick us. If he does then someone has an appointment with Morr!"
Siegfried nods to Franz as his gaze wanders the faces in the room, searching with a practiced eye for any obvious henchmen. He lingers on a few before he points out to the others the nervous blonde, the furtive man by the dice table and his associate near the bar, and the man with the injured hand drinking alone. Before adding brusquely: "This Grolsch fellow seems to be alone, so maybe it is indeed a good idea to go with him .. whilst watching our backs."
The tall man at the bar pays for his refill and picking up the flagon takes a long drink of the bitter ale. Wiping the foam from his mouth he replies to the barkeep's question: "Yes and I'm looking for a place for the night, if you know of any?"
Noticing the redhead being ignored he then adds: "Oh, and I think its the ladies turn to be served next." He tips his hat towards her, "Fräulein."
The barkeep rubs his hands on a filthy rag before replying. "Not this time o'er night, boss." He quickly pours a refill for a scholarly looking boy in his late teens who pays without making eye contact, before taking the tankard over to a table where a well dressed fat man sits alone.
The woman seems momentarily taken aback. "What? Um? Lady? Where? Who? Err - that's me isn't it? – Yes I’m next, its me. Now what do I want? What do you want, Betta? Do you sell beer? Yes, of course you sell beer. I like beer - at least I liked Granny's beer - yes I'll definitely have one of those. I think - Err? Yes, yes I will, but not a big one though, no, no not a big one a small one please - yes a small beer please."
The barkeep gives her a long stare before bursting in to laughter and pouring a fresh mug of ale and placing it in front of her. "I like a good crazy bitch, myself!" He winks at Waldermar. "Name's Gustav and I run this place so's to speak."
Once served Betta tips a schilling and continues on to the barkeep, "I am also new to Nuln, I arrived just today, just today – it’s been quite a journey, quite a journey and just look at the state of me – what would Granny say? Tish, tish that’s what. Eh? Where was I? A room? Yes a room? I need to find a room – a clean room, not too expensive no and oh yes respectable – yes, yes definitely respectable - where can I find a clean, affordable, respectable room."
The barkeep pockets the coins and laughs again. "If I wer you .." he starts, before being interrupted by the drunk at the end of the bar, who slurrs loudly: "... you can tell Diedtz I ain't got his fucking bauble an I don't know who as. An I don't work for him anyways. So he can fuck right off! An what's more .. you black coat granny fuckers can kiss my fuckin' arse!! Yous an the little arse licking stunties wot fetch and carry for him! 'Yes Herr Diedtz, No Herr Diedtz. Suck yer fuckin cock fer yer Herr Diedtz?!' BLAH!"
The volume level in the tavern drops a notch or two as patrons suddenly take an interest. The barkeep, sensing a change in the mood, raises his eyebrows by way of apology to Betta before deftly interrupting the drunk.
"Now 'arry, you've had yer fill. Why don't yer go in back and sleep it off fore you say something yer really gonna regret, eh?" With surprising strength he manhandles the drunk through the curtain behind the counter.
The watchmen bristle but suddenly notice several pairs of inquiring eyes on them and apparently remember just where they are. The taller of the two, a hatched faced man in his late forties, shouts after the pair: "Yeah, 'arry. Sleep it off son. Cos soon enough sleepin is all yer gonna be doing!!" He tosses a handful of bits on the counter top that scatter everywhere, a few falling in to the filthy straw at Betta's feet.
As they retreat toward the door, the crowd closes behind them and Gustav re-appears behind the bar. He pours himself a drink as the volume level slowly returns to normal. "Stupid drunken piece of shit!" he growls to nobody in particular.
A short man in a too-large overcoat clears the throng and occupies the space vacated by the drunk on the stool. He nods at Waldermar and grins lasciviously at Betta, before tapping his yellowed knuckle on the counter top. "Another, when yer ready 'stav."
I am to nerds what nerds are to normal people.
Siegfried observes the incident at the bar with an expression of disgust. "This Diedtz sounds like a typical despicable noble," he mutters to Franz and Dieter. "All high and mighty! They always have others to run their errands but talk of a bauble does sound like something that may lead to coin of some sort.."
The stocky Stirlander gets to his feet and proposes to find out more about Diedtz from the tavern keep. Katalin also shuffles off his perch. "Seeing as we don't have many options, maybe I can bargain this Grolsch's price down a bit!" he says, falling in alongside the bounty hunter.
Franz watches them depart before moving to occupy the bench vacated by Siegfried and busies himself observing the thinning crowd of patrons. Dieter nurses his ale and does his best to shepherd their pile of belongings.
At the counter Waldermar turns to face Betta. "It would seem like we're both in the same situation, maybe it's worth heading out together to locate a place to stay. Nuln can be pretty rough at night!" he says motioning to the area the fight nearly broke out. "By the way," he adds, offering his hand to shake, "I'm Waldermar Rommel."
Betta returns Waldermar’s hand shake. "Err – Th-Th-Thank you, Elizabetta, Betta - yes, yes please let us search together, search together, yes I would like that. Granny always says - said-said-said! In a place like this you should find and stand behind the biggest man with a sword – and you are um-um big, have a sword and are err-a man."
Betta smiles awkwardly at Waldermar before gathering up the spilled coins at her feet and turns back to Gustav with them in her outstretched hand, still smiling but with her eyes now a little more fixed and intent. "Err – yours I think – You were saying? About where to find that room?"
Gustav takes the coins from Betta with thanks and refills her cup before pouring out an ale for Grolsch, who is busily stuffing his clay pipe with oily tabac again. The little man, overhearing the conversation between Waldermar and Betta, takes a swig of his ale and glances surreptitiously at the tavern keep. Gustav seems to consider the pair for a moment before stating broadly, "Grolsch here knows a woman runs a boarding house, of sorts, in the Faule'. Used to be a knockin' shop 'fore the fire."
Grolsch blows smoke and frowns before introducing himself to Waldermar and Betta. "Ingrid? Mad Ingrid?" he says somewhat surprised. "What about the other place over on Heirate? Ingrid don't give me a discount.."
Gustav fixes Grolsch with a firm stare. "Respectable, the lady said." He fishes two bits out of a mound of dirty crockery behind the counter and smiles reassuringly at Betta.
Grolsch sucks air through his front teeth, then hawks and spits in to the straw. "Whatever yer say. Four lads at the back want lodgings an' all." The Marienburger gesticulates at the approaching figures of Siegfried and his stern faced companion. "Three an' a half anyways. The little bastard gives me the shits!"
He draws greedily on his pipe and belches loudly out the corner of his mouth. "Too late to go gallivantin' around now I spose," he says to Waldermar and Betta. "Twenty bits each an' I'll take yer wiv 'em to Ingrid's. Be a busy night fer the old slag!"
I am to nerds what nerds are to normal people.
"Yes we'd be willing to bunk in with these people, if it means we could come to a beneficial financial arrangement," says Waldermar suggestively.
Grolsch stops sucking on his pipe for a moment. Withdrawing it from his mouth, he jabs the tip at Waldermar and squints. "Now look ere son .. "
He's interrupted by Siegfried and Katalin who sidles up to the bar alongside Grolsch. "You seem to be doing a roaring trade tonight," he says and nods at Waldermar and Betta. "So how about we make it 100 bits for the 6 of us?"
Grolsch recoils from the Dwarf and winces. "Thar', err, sounds fair.." he grumbles after an uncomfortable silence.
"I knew I liked you," says Katalin and grins wickedly at Grolsch, before reaching up to slap him on the back. The act of which causes the diminutive man to choke on his pipe and one or two of the nearest patron's hands to stray reflexively to their pockets.
Siegfried orders two beers. Gustav obliges and the bounty hunter inquires after the incident earlier. "What was all the commotion about? Who is this Diedtz fellow?" he asks, motioning toward the back of the inn where Franz and Dieter watch them through the haze of tabac smoke. "From the looks of your drunk friend, he might have just fired someone."
"Diedtz is trouble, son," says Gustav matter of fact. "Some bigwig over at the University. Least thars' his official job. He's too busy by half. Harry said he's been looking for something. A rock of some kind. Said it's his, but everyone knows about Hallur's missin' bauble. Diedtz is after the reward money for himself is my guess."
"An' so's you know," he adds, pausing to refill Siegfried's flagon, "Harry ain't no great friend of mine neither. Nulner's look out for their own s'all."
Betta smiles cautiously at Siegfried as she catches his eye during the conversation with Gustav. "Err-Em – I guess that sounds okay," she says looking questioningly at Waldermar. "Ingrid, you say? Well yes if you are sure it is respectable, and clean! It must be clean! Did I mention that before? Yes I’m sure you did Betta ... and four others?"
"Ain't been round Ingrid's in a while, but it should be nice n' cosy," Grolsch informs her patronizingly. "Fer wat its worth, if she ain't dead as like, Ingrid ain't as bad as she used to be," he says, tapping out his pipe. "She don't like folk nosin' round s'all."
I am to nerds what nerds are to normal people.
"Well, now that we've got a room sorted for the night I say we move off and get an early start on this bauble tomorrow," enthuses Katalin. "The reward could be very helpful."
Dieter signals his agreement from their booth by the door and sets to work bundling up the pile of belongings. He tosses Franz his shovel and a silent acknowledgement passes between the two men as they both check their weapons.
"Aye aswell you don't stick yer oar in to that man's business," Gustav cautions Katalin. "He's a prickly one Diedtz, an them bully boys of his takes no prisoners."
Gustav makes a fuss of bidding Betta a good night. As she slips on her snood, pulling the sack-cloth over her long dirty red hair, she in turn glances at Grolsch as he teeters nervously around the Dwarf, seemingly appraising him for any hint of deception.
Satisfied with the arrangements, Waldermar shares his knowledge of the Oldenhaller family. Gustav seems surprised that the newcomers did not know to whom he was referring. He also gives you fair warning not to interfere, but apparently sensing your determination to investigate, whatever the risks, he suggests you come back tomorrow and speak to Harry about it. He also reminds you to stick close to Grolsch on your trek through the Faulestadt making no bones about the dangers to the uninitiated. Gustav labours the point by nodding at Grolsch who returns the gesture hastily.
As Siegfried and Katalin gather up their things from Dieter and Franz, Grolsch accepts the agreed upon sum of one hundred bits, each of you paying what you can. "Shall we be off then?" he says, pocketing the coin quickly.
The smog has turned in to a thick freezing fog as you embark, shouldering your way through the patrons loitering around outside the Kaisersnitzel. You hear Gustav ring his bell, calling time, as the tavern door swings shut in your wake. The night air is noxious and freezing. Visibility is little more than thirty feet in any direction as you make your way out beyond the thin halo of light and warmth offered by the tavern and proceed gingerly in to the gloom. Grolsch produces a hand lantern which he bullies in to life. The acrid stench of lantern oil mingling with the already overpowering sulphurous reek of the fog.
He leads the group out of the southern docks, over a timber footbridge, the narrow canal below clogged with filth and stinking precipitously of decay and excrement. As you look along the banks you see piles of refuse, broken crockery, animal bones, entrails, human faeces, and rotting meat strewn in and around bushes. In some places the muddy bank slides in to quagmires where dark shapes are illuminated by distant fires as they flit between earthworks and ruined faucets. Grolsch urges you not to linger and leads you all quickly onward over the muddy boards. The beams are slippery, with only Katalin seemingly impervious to the treacherous surface. The sturdy Dwarf occasionally offering his tree trunk arms like balustrades to steady an unstable companion.
Turning the corner on to the wide cobbled road that Grolsch informs you is the Aubenstrasse, rows of oil lamps finally dispel the gloom, allowing a glimpse of one of the great gatehouses at the far end of the Faule's main avenue. Two round towers, shrouded in shadow, each more than fifty feet high, stand either side of a pointed arch, newly built, with a well lit painted statue of you know not whom in a niche above the entrance. The inference is clear though: beyond these gates you are subject to the Burgher's jurisdiction. Here resides the Emperor's officers. Here is a place of rule and order. At least this one avenue, for it is patently obvious there is no such thing in the foreboding expanse of Old Nuln.
The houses along the Aubenstrasse appear huge, many possessing three or more storeys. All at chaotic angles, in varying states of disrepair, of different shades and hues, as if they were so many stones at the bottom of a stream flowing around the great boulder of the slums that stretch away in all directions for as far as the meagre light penetrates. As you head south along the seemingly deserted thoroughfare, toward the gatehouse in the distance, you pass two semi-naked men lifting another barrel of excrement from the back of a cart and emptying it in to a stretch of the canal. A small brown pig roots around on the garbage heap alongside the bone pickers, emaciated beggars and wild dogs. All seem eager to rifle through this latest deposit. The city, at least this part of it, is a caricature of the ageing human body: smelly, dirty, jaded, worn out.
As you turn off the Aubenstrasse, in to a spider's web of narrow alleys, the contrasts become more vivid. These back alleys, like warrens, are teeming with vermin which appear to be the only evident inhabitants of the slums. You do see an old woman shovelling dung from the area in front of her ramshackle house. She gives you a withering look from a pox scarred face as you pass by. Signs cover the walls all around. Painted by the illiterate to inform the illiterate. Warnings, directions, graffiti, its impossible to tell. Some are three dimensional objects; a cat, a fat man in a wide brimmed hat, hand prints, numerals. All colours, all hues. Given the apparent dereliction of the slums and the lack of human inhabitants, you can't help but wonder just how many actually occupy this area of the city.
The silence is finally broken by a group of urchins with dirty faces and tousled hair who run towards you. "Ya want a room? Bed fer the night? Wer you from mister??" Struggling between them to grab at your sling bags and weapons, one even trying to wrest Waldermar's saddle off his shoulder. They dance around energetically calling out. "Oi stunty, I knew yer brother!" Another, "Sis, dat you??" Their ragged clothes are filthy, their bare feet encased in filth.
They look like corpses in the feeble light thrown off by the tiny lantern, the freezing smog making it seem as if they are breathing tendrils of smoke. Grolsch barks a warning and draws a wicked looking club from under his overcoat and lays about, not holding back. One urchin is struck in the face and falls down, scrabbling along the cobbles on all fours like a wild animal, his features a mask of blood. Another is caught in the arm and there is an audible crack. The child skips away, his left arm flopping wildly at the elbow, howling with pain or laughter. Its hard to tell.
Eventually they take flight, crowing and whooping like gulls. Grolsch, red faced and wheezing with the exertion, curses in his native Marienburger before reassuring you all that Ingrid's is just around the corner. He holds up his lantern illuminating the wall opposite, where you see scrawled in a weathered and faded script: Gropecunt. Gesturing you all onward he leads you in to the unlit cul de sac, the terminus of which is a great wrought iron gate supported by two wide concrete pillars, barring further progress. Beyond is a quadrangle of buildings, their outlines just visible through the gloom. Wrapped around the gate is a rusty chain, the lock seemingly just as neglected.
Grolsch bids you wait a moment while he reaches round the pillar and opens a wooden hatch, the inside concealing a lever. As he yanks on it, grunting with the effort, the sound of distant bells pealing through the fog are just audible. Satisfied, he turns to face the group and pats his pockets theatrically. "This is as far as I go," he says, turning the knob of his oil lantern so that the flame flares up, illuminating his bald head and horrible decaying teeth and making you all squint. "Ingrid an me, we don't really mix," he offers, licking his lips nervously. "So I'll just be bidding yer all a good night .."
I am to nerds what nerds are to normal people.
Katalin quietly draws his axe. Waldermar, seeing him do so, wordlessly loosens his sabre, breaking the seal of ice on the scabbard with an audible crunch. The two of them exchange worried glances. Franz, sensing the change in the group’s disposition, hefts his rustic iron shovel up over his shoulder, temporarily casting a long sinister shadow over the crumbling plaster work adorning the alley wall. Grolsch, startled, steps back and begins to speak but is interrupted by Siegfried who springs in to action like a coiled snake and snares the shocked Marienburger effortlessly in a one handed headlock. Grolsch tries to resist but he is easily overpowered by the bounty hunter who speaks through clenched teeth, apparently barely suppressing a sudden rage.
"Now wait a minute. The coin we gave you was for the room, not for an escort,” he hisses. “Seems to me you owe Ingrid that coin," he deftly manhandles Grolsch in to his other hand and pats the weasly man’s filthy little pockets, removing the bulging bag of bits and tossing it to Katalin.
Grolsch’s mouth opens and closes like a suffocating fish but Siegfried seems content to throttle the life out him. He struggles futilely like a fly in a web, clawing at the massive forearm clamped mercilessly around his throat, before eventually going limp. Expertly, Siegfried relaxes his grip just a little and Grolsch gasps, blowing spittle and a great steaming cloud of foul smelling air in to the night. The lantern, fallen to the floor, splutters and begins to flood. The low light and smoke mingling with the vapour given off by the seven bodies pressed so tightly together in to such a confined space.
Just as your eyes adjust to the gloom, the puddle of spilt lantern oil at Grolsch’s feet ignites sending a heat wave and a gust of acrid black smoke across the alley. He writhes and kicks frantically at his flaming boots causing Siegfried to stagger back in to the iron railings behind them with a clang and a grunt of pain. For a second it looks as if Grolsch will break free, but the bounty hunter belligerently clings to his quarry, despite having the wind knocked out of him.
As the oil burns off and the flame dies down, Betta steps forward and extends one arm with her palm outwards to rest on Grolsch’s chest and says calmly, “Oh tish, tish Herr Grolsch - it would be so very rude for you not to stay and introduce us to Frau Ingrid, especially as we have given you so much of our money – surely she can’t be all that ‘mad’ – as Granny use to say we are all special in our own way.” With her other hand she surreptitiously plucks a small pin from the hem of her skirt.
Grolsch, incensed, growls like a wounded animal and spits a ball of phlegm in the woman’s face. Time seems to slow and an uncomfortable pressure begins to build in the air around Betta. A stream of blood spontaneously erupts from Waldermar’s nose and Katalin shouts something in Khazalid, his eyes wide with alarm. Then, just as suddenly as it arrived, the sensation dissipates. Dieter regains his wits first and staggers past Betta, dagger in hand, to peer intently through the bars in to the fog. Craning his head to listen for any sound. He is soon rewarded with the patter of feet. Lots of feet. He shouts a hoarse warning just before the first hound slams against the gate in a shower of teeth and saliva causing you all to jump. Franz, hypnotized, now recovers sharply and reflexively brings down his shovel in a fluid arc, slamming the flat of it on to Grolsch’s pate with a sickening crunch and mighty ding! Something warm and wet sprays Betta and Siegfried and a large dark stain spreads across the front of the little man’s troos.
For a moment there is disbelief. Siegfried gapes at Franz and lets the dead weight fall to the floor where it twitches and writhes. It seems like an eternity until Grolsch stops moving. As the group stare in horror, from somewhere behind you comes the sound of laughter. A long, nasty, rattling cackle piercing the fog. As the hounds thrash against the iron bars, footsteps sidle toward you from the entrance to the alley and out of the gloom steps a hunched figure in a shawl. It remains about ten feet away, tilting it’s head to one side at an almost impossible angle.
Other figures carrying torches, some too large, others bent double, some just wrong in their dimensions appear at the hag’s side. Dressed in a bizarre mixture of rags and finery they are carrying crude looking weapons fashioned from broken up furniture, spiked mauls and rusty blades of every variety. Many wear masks, sack cloths or linen hoods with eye slits torn in to them. The leader, a man, at least in size and stature, with a hideous mound of tumours for a face, gestures with a pickaxe handle and they advance past the hag to cut off any possible escape from the alleyway.
The air begins to thicken again, this time the pressure builds more gradually, less violently. The sensation makes your hackles rise and your skin crawl. From behind the gate, the sound of several boots on gravel can be heard now emanating from the cluster of buildings in the distance. Many voices calling out in harsh Nulner slang, intermingling with the continued snarling from the hounds that slam tirelessly against the bars, driven in to a frenzy by the scent of blood and determined to get at the meat.
I am to nerds what nerds are to normal people.
Franz staggers back, visibly shaken. He drops the bloodied shovel and wrings his hands, eyes fixed on the expanding pool of blood around the steaming corpse of Grolsch Van Eyke.
Siegfried calmly drops to one knee and pulls a crossbow from the sling bag at his feet. Jaw set in steeled concentration he attaches the ratchet and pulls the oiled drawstring in to position, not once looking up from his efforts.
The spilled lantern casts long shadows over the alley, shrouding the no-man's land in a shifting patchwork of inky darkness. Katalin growls menacingly, his keen eyes seeing something the others can't in the pitch black. "Come on then you Grobi fondlers, who's going to be the first to taste my axe!?" he shouts gamely.
From nowhere a freakish abomination on shrunken legs erupts from the void. It screams obscenities in some unknown tongue and bears down on Katalin, flailing a rusty chain that crashes against the Dwarf's shield with the resounding clang of steel on steel.
Emboldened, Waldermar raises his sabre and, bellowing his own war cry, charges the next shape to emerge from the gloom, not giving it chance to bring whatever weapon it has to bear. Dropping his shoulder he powers home a thundering overhand slash in to a hideous skeletal husk of a man with skin so thin it seems as if a sack of bones has crawled out of the charnel pits to give battle. The blade bites deep, almost taking its head off but for a flap of grey flesh that captures the dead weight in a pirouette, directing a geyser of foul smelling arterial ichor across the horseman's wide brimmed hat.
As the corpse-thing falls, another nightmare hurdles the remains and thrashes at Waldermar with a table leg, cutting short his exaltation. Its skin is a carpet of quivering warts, only identifiable as human by the cloud of hot air gushing from its maw. The swing is high and wild but deflects off the lip of Waldermar's hastily raised shield, connecting with the side of his skull with a sickening crunch. He screams, eyes wide with shock and agony. Dropping his sabre he tears the hat from his head and claws at his bloodied face. Mercifully, he soon collapses to the floor unconscious, or brained, or both. The monster looms over his prone form bellowing its hatred, drooling from a too-long tongue, silhouetted against the torch carried by their leader who lurks at the rear and barks encouragement and threats in equal measure.
Seeing Waldermar fall, Dieter curses Franz under his breath and bravely inches forward, shaking with adrenalin, his fisherman's spear held tentatively at arms length. Clumsily he thrusts with the razor sharp tip at the beast, drawing blood and driving it back half a yard from where Waldermar lays face down in the alley, his own life's blood now mingling in with that rapidly spilling from two ruined corpses.
Betta, seemingly overcome by events, slams her palms against the gate hysterically calling out, '"Help! Mutants! For the love of your gods help us or they will be after you next!"
As if in reply, the sound of chanting suddenly comes to the fore. The hag has advanced and stands alongside her lieutenant, withered arms outstretched, brandishing a bushel of thorns at Betta in a blasphemous ritual of sin. The pressure in the air continues to build, at first like a sudden draft, soon progressing in to a ringing of the ears that heralds the Aethyric certainty of the passage of time and the inevitability of death.
I am to nerds what nerds are to normal people.
Swirling patterns of purple congeal around the outstretched arms of the hag, spreading out across the intervening space in a foul miasma that reeks of the grave; lime, decaying wood and the unmistakable cidery tang of putrefaction. Thin tendrils snake out from her bony fingers, moving erratically, probing the air.
One particularly fat strand loops in to a line of cracked plaster work, flashing along the alley wall, surging straight for Franz who yet lingers over the corpse of Grolsch, oblivious, lost in his own improvised madness. As he absorbs the full brunt of the sickly magick he spasms briefly before, perversely, seeming to regain his wits. He takes stock of the scene before howling his benediction to Morr and charges forward, possessed of a new fanatical rage. Powering past Dieter in a flurry of limbs, he leaps arms outstretched on the beast straddling Waldermar's unconscious form. The momentum alone takes them both off their feet, crashing backwards into the shrouded patch of alley where no light is cast.
Siegfried, sliding a bolt in to the breach of his crossbow, takes careful deliberate aim at the huge mutant holding a torch at the far end of the alley. Expertly he adjusts the slant of the muzzle a few degrees so that it points in the shadow of the hag lurking beyond. Just as his finger tickles the trigger, he suddenly and wordlessly collapses. He falls badly, his face hitting the cobbles with a wet thump, followed by the horrible skittering sound of loose teeth on stone. He lays face down, eyes open, condensation and blood streaming from his slack jaw. The weapon he was holding clatters to the cobbles beside him, the loaded bolt falling out of the breach and rolling away in to the shadows.
Dieter groans in despair, but only has a fraction of a second to consider the implications before himself keeling over. Fortunately his spear lands under him, the tip kicking up sparks as the weight of his body drives it along the alley floor. The sound of whooshing air escaping his lungs indicating the haft has braced him against the worst of the fall. He too lies inert, drooling, eyes wide open.
Katalin draws back his axe, preparing to strike, then watches the beast that attacked him inexplicably fall to it's knees. Bemused, he shouts a question to Betta but she too has sunk to her knees, her arms dangling perilously through the bars, pinning her in a strange posture of supplication to the forms now visible through the gloom beyond.
Suddenly the air is filled with the unmistakable zip of crossbow bolts. From above, along the rooftop of the derelict building opposite, comes a muffled cry of delight as one finds its mark in the shoulder of the giant mutant with a tumour where its face ought to be. He spins away, pole-axed by the force, spraying gore over those jostling about for position at the entrance to the alley.
The hag's shrouded head snaps to face the direction of this new unseen threat. As more bolts tear through the cloud of smog and smoke, some striking home violently, others ricocheting off the masonry, she wordlessly melts back in to the darkness. The throng of freaks accompanying her raise their voices in a horrible screeching wail, a chorus of defeat as they too strike their torches and begin to flee in to the fog.
As they retreat, the energy binding the group dissipates and senses are gradually regained. Siegfried moans and curls up in to a foetal position, lethargically raising his hands to cradle his ruined mouth. Dieter, barely able to stand, clasps his bruised or broken ribs and whimpers. Leaning on his spear for support, he shuffles over to where Waldermar lays still unmoving.
Katalin wastes no time in brutally dispatching the bleary eyed mutants that remain, abandoned along with the dead to their soon to be gruesome fate at the hands of the Dwarf. He whistles cheerfully as he slips his dirk in to the eye socket of the shrivel legged freak that attacked him. The soft flesh of its face parting like silk, the thing's blood curdling screams of agony only cut short when Katalin eventually finds its brain.
New figures carrying torches appear at the far end of the alley, accompanied by the hounds, straining on their leashes. As the new arrivals approach, yet more torches are thrown from above, landing along the length of the alley and for the first time illuminating the scene of horror and carnage below. Slowly they draw near, stepping over the corpses, the hounds snapping and snarling at Dieter as he painfully drags Waldermar clear.
Their leader carries a modified crossbow in his right hand, the stock pared right back to reduce it's weight. His left is bound tighly in leather strapping where the forearm meets the wrist, the hand beneath concealed by a gauntlet of filthy ring mail. He is a young man barely out of puberty, his hairless face and youthful features lined beyond his tender years.
He whistles an instruction to the dogs. They leap forward, dragging the handlers after them and charge towards their prize. The sound of tearing flesh and the competing growls of the hounds soon fill the night air. As they feed on the bodies, the youth steps forward, looming over Katalin whose sudden hiss serves to draw the group's attention to the fact that those crossbows which proved so effective against the mutants are now re-loaded and aimed squarely at him.
"Kill them and let's be done with it Magnus," grunts a hooded figure to his right.
I am to nerds what nerds are to normal people.
"Not so fast idiot," Magnus replies out of the corner of his mouth to the hooded figure, keeping eyes and crossbow keenly trained on Katalin."Wrong turn was it? You better speak up quick as the dogs still haven't had their fill yet..."
"Now hold up! We can explain, just don't shoot!" Exclaims Katalin as he sheaths his blood smeared dagger. "We were led here as we were told there's bed and board here, but it was a trick. These things then attacked us and got what they deserved!" Katalin spits at the mutant he just murdered.
Siegfried signals his agreement by also hawking a ball of bloody phlegm in the general direction of the corpses.
"Mutant filth!" he exclaims angrily, mopping the drool off his swollen lips with the cuff of his jacket.
"Oh so much blood, so much blood," whispers Betta belatedly.
Magnus looks very un-impressed and spits out a reply, "So much blood you say? Beheading your guide with a spade will do that!"
Colour rising, bony fists clenched - fighting back 'the urge', Betta fixes Magnus with a glare, "They are telling you the truth! We were on our way to Frau Ingrid's when we were attacked, we had no choice but to defend ourselves!" Gesturing wildly at the others she continues, "Herr Grolsch was not killed by our hands!" Then more softly, "We are no threat to you - please we need your help? Our friends are hurt."
Magnus raises an eyebrow, "Frau Ingrid you say? She will indeed want to see those who have drawn that putrid witch to our door."
"Augh.." Dieter groans, holding his side. "We are not like them. Our first night here and we are attacked!" He grumbles, loosening Waldermar's collar and taking the measure of his head wound.
Siegfried meets Magnus's gaze. "We appreciate your help really, but is there any chance you can enlighten us as to what's going on? We were led here by Grolsch who said there were rooms here for hire, then those things attacked. Now I'm missing half my fucking teeth, my friend Waldermar has his face smashed and Grolsch looks to have his skull stoved in!"
"Aye, I'd like to hear some answers too when you've lowered that dart-gun, youngster!" says Katalin. "But first I want to get off these damn streets. I don't know about you, young sir, but where I'm from stomping cut-throat muties is cause for celebration not stand-off. What do you say? These people need a healer, a good fire and a bed."
Magnus considers the request for a moment before gesturing to his hooded colleagues, "Help the wounded in but stay lively in case Lotte and her minions return." He moves his icy black glare towards Siegfried.
"Thank you, thank you! But Katalin is right," gushes Betta. "Please, please we must hurry they might be coming back!" She adds excitedly, turning to the others. "When we are safe I can tend to your injuries if you will let me try?" She begins bustling around trying to help Siegfried, Dieter and Waldermar on to their feet and ready to move out.
The group are frisked and disarmed before being led out of the alley, back on to the main street. From there they are corralled through the hollowed out shell of the building opposite to where a hole has been smashed in the back wall. The improvised driveway beyond is a muddy quagmire, untended for much of its length. Magnus leads the way, weaving through a complex pattern of dry islands and embankment until you are within sight of the main house. An ancient looking central residence framed by outhouses, ad hoc extensions and an overgrown garden. The sound of a fountain plinks out of the darkness, and beyond there is the shift and clatter of armed men moving around in earnest. "What the fuck is this place?" Siegfried demands. The strangers don't answer.
Probably built in the previous century, the rather ramshackle three storey residence boasts little more than a hall, scullery, two or three bedrooms and legion cramped chambers. The enclosed quadrangle is tiny, a small plot of muddy soil where once a well tended lawn may have resided surrounded by an octagon of hedges bristling with thorny overgrowth. A wild grassy bank runs down to the fountain, the steady trickle of near freezing spring water falling in to a hollowed out stone basin. The thin scent of herbs punctuates the night air. In the flickering yellow light cast by the torches Betta excitedly points out rosemary, mugwart and comfrey individually. Underneath which lingers the stench of decaying roses. Unpicked, perished from the cold, they rot on their stalks and litter the long grass.
The morass of souls that dwell within Gropecunt soon become apparent. As you are led through the house you encounter various groups of people, some standing in corners, others seated or sprawled on lice infested mattresses by the great open fireplaces full of sweet rushes. Men and women of all ages, some clearly cursed with morbidity, rickets and sundry .. other .. abnormalities. They react to the new arrivals fearfully, gaunt vacant looking children clutched to their mother's breasts, the menfolk shooing the elderly back under filthy blankets, away from prying eyes. Others have no shame and glare at the interlopers with outright hostility, challenging you to acknowledge them for what they are: mutants.
"Hell!" Siegfried drawls, under his breath, and realizes from Magnus's mocking grin that he has spoken aloud.
Magnus gestures and two men drag Waldermar in, arms slung over their shoulders, toes dragging on the floor slabs. He bids the others relax and scales a set of stone stairs, the steps worn smooth with the passage of years. The other men accompanying you seem more concerned with warming their bones than guarding anyone.
Katalin detaches himself from the group by the foot of the stairs and mingles as best he can, striking up optimistic conversation with anyone who will give him time of day. Betta frets and fusses over Waldermar as he is laid unceremoniously to rest in a dusty alcove near the hearth. She seems oblivious to the many pairs of eyes that follow her every movement, seemingly only concerned with preserving the big man's life. Eventually, she is satisfied with his condition and inspects a surprisingly bashful Dieter's ribs, declaring them bruised but not broken and sets to tearing up strips of cloth from the multitude of her filthy underskirts to make bandages. Siegfried hisses at her and shoves her away when she tries to inspect the bounty hunter's swollen lips, his slitted eyes never leaving those of the other inhabitants.
"So which of you nailed that thug with the bolt, earlier? I'd like to shake him by the hand." Katalin sidles up to two guards by the door, backs turned, warming their hands on the fire. "Piss off stunty!" the nearest one grunts. The other doesn't even turn to see what all the fuss is about.
A child, around six with an ugly brown growth in her neck creeps up behind the dwarf and stands, hand on mouth, staring intently at him. "You're small," it says disinterestedly. Katalin glares. Quite undaunted she sucks her thumb enthusiastically and stares back.
"Posner. The Butcher they call him. That fucker with all the lumps in his face?" A thin reedy voice interrupts. A tall emaciated man in his mid twenties looms over Katalin. His sallow yellowing skin and the dark circles under his eyes suggest some kind of disease.
Katalin looks at him before continuing enthusiastically, "A good shot in the dark, that was, and I should know I can see better than most. Reminded me of a shot I made on the slopes of the Grey Mountains as a youngster." The man stares at Katalin vacantly.
"Although I wasn't shooting at a mutant, more a cultist, and he was up a tree rather than down an alley, but it was a great shot. Any of you ever seen the trees on the Mountains? Huge things they can be. How did you end up here, anyway?"
"Wife got sick, said it was the flux from the river water," he mutters. "Wasn't though. Ran through her quick. Shriveled away to nothing. Now it seems I got the same," he wheezes and raises a spindly arm. Something uncoils itself and clearly moves around under the flaccid skin of his forearm.
"Won't be long for me but Mol 'ere has a chance, in the Princes." The child hasn't moved and stares at Katalin, brow furrowed, lost in concentration.
The man goes on to describe in a monotonous drawl the chain of misfortune that saw him sell the few items of value he had and finally brought him here with his daughter. It's a short and depressing anecdote.
"Who's in charge would you say?" Katalin interjects. Causing a moment of confused head scratching. After what seems like an age the man shrugs labouriously, as if it is a terrible physical effort.
Undeterred Katalin presses on optimistically, "Do you often get folk like us run from the Kaiserschnitzel into a backstreet ambush outside your front door? That needs sorting out, I'd say. At both ends. Barman and Hag. What do you say?"
At this one of the men by the fire turns to look at his companion before both stride over. The sallow man quickly scoops his daughter up and pulls her away. The bigger of the two rounds on Katalin, "I told you to piss off," he growls, foetid breath making the dwarf wince. "What you angling for? If Magnus had his head on straight you'd be occupyin' four feet of soil out the back with the rest of em."
His friend finds this hysterical, "He's short even for a midge - more like three!"
Nervous glances are cast toward the trio. Katalin grins and points at the joker, "Yeah, good one!" he says, slipping away, the smile falling from his face the moment his back is turned.
They're still laughing as he pushes his way back toward the main hall.
Around half an hour after he disappeared, Magnus returns. He asks those who wish an audience with Ingrid to follow him upstairs. Dieter waves Betta on and stays with Waldermar, taking over the needle and twine she was using to stitch up the swollen wound on his face. Siegfried, wrapped in a blanket and having found something to drink swigs from his bottle and barks threats at anyone brave enough to come between him and the warmth from the flames.
As the sound of life recedes, the second storey landing sprawls before Betta. A once grand ensemble of tapestry, ornament and age-darkened artworks line walls. Dusty couches nestle up against the balustrade, undisturbed for decades. Magnus gestures toward a chamber at the end of the hall. The door lays ajar, the flickering light and crackle of a fire invites her in. As Katalin tries to follow, Magnus wordlessly holds him back. Seeing the Dwarf is about to protest he removes his arm. "Wait," the young man whispers.
"Yes, yes!" An old woman sits in a chair before the hearth. She obviously once had red hair and the warm freckled complexion that goes with it. The hair is now dirty white and her skin mottled and dark, drawn too tightly over a finely boned face creased with advanced age. Skin hangs loose at her arms and she shoos a young man away from her irritably palming off the porcelain cup she was drinking from moments before the intrusion. He is dressed in the robes of a Shallyan initiate - although there is something odd about the symbol on his chest.
"I welcome you to my house," the old woman says formally. "Get me up," she wheezes.
As Betta enters she reflexively holds her breath. No amount of lavender oil can conceal the stench of wasted flesh.
Ingrid rises, feebly, supported by the arm of the young monk who whispers something quietly in to her ear, she nods once, blinking her fragile lidded eyes.
"My grandson tells me you are a woman of great value, but I only have hope, not proof. Give me something I can use to keep you and your friends alive, dearie." Ingrid says painfully. "I'm dying, you see, and I'm sorry to say that I have become careless with other people's lives in the last few weeks."
I am to nerds what nerds are to normal people.
"Frau Ingrid how can we ever... Er, what? A woman of great value? Surely you don't mean...? Er - Friends? Well really we only just, but I suppose, not the one with the shovel though! No definitely not him!"
Ingrid studies Betta for a moment before inclining her head toward the young man beside her. "Mattias, you are certain? Is it her? Magnus was being entirely truthful?"
"Yes, Magnus said the girl," he pauses and nods at Betta respectfully, "'Betta' pre-empted the attack. He felt it. There can be no doubt."
Ingrid sighs and lurches towards Betta. "Poor girl, poor heart. Talk to Ingrid, dearie." In the lamplight, her stretched skin appears yellow, her eye sockets two black holes. "Tell her all your heart and all your mind, sweet. I don't want you to be in any doubt of what we can and will do to you if you refuse even once more." From somewhere she drags up a grin, showing all her rotten black teeth. It falls from her face as she begins to cough, wracked with sudden agony.
Mattias squeezes Ingrid's elbow and gives her a plaintive frown. Helping the old woman back in to her chair, wiping the spittle from her chin, he looks at Betta thoughtfully, expectantly. "Have you eaten?" he asks. He points to a second, lower, carved chair by the fire. "Sit down."
A small ceramic dish of hot food sits on the room's heavy, polished oak table. Mattias takes a clean plate from under the cloth and removes the lid of the dish. The food - two or three objects that are yellow, soft and purse shaped - steam in the damp air.
He hands Betta a plate and pours a thickly scented green tea in to a delicate porcelain cup painted with little heart motifs.
Mattias smiles as Betta salivates nervously, his aura blooming in to a great shimmering field of azure. Warmth and compassion flood from him, expanding to envelop both women, warming, or seeming to warm, Betta's every fibre. Ingrid sighs again and drifts off, her eyelids drooping and head falling slightly forward. Only the faintest whisper of the aethyr betrays him, the acidic tinge of copper and ozone just barely perceptible over the sweet smelling food. At his insistence Betta scoops up the morsels in her dirty little fingers and bites nervously in to the warm brittle pastry, tasting potatoes, fish and sage. She looks at him intently before blurting out her many questions.
Mattias listens calmly, as Betta offers copious thanks on everyone's behalf for the 'hospitality'. Truthfully explaining the series of events, as she witnessed them, starting with the Kaiserschnitzel. Franz's murder of Grolsch is not omitted, described as it happened - bar one guilty detail.
"Must have been using some strange sort of powers," she says sheepishly, despite knowing that particular cat is out of the bag and halfway down the street already. Mattias nods, shifting carefully on the edge of his chair, holding her gaze, a blank priestly expression of indifference, of not judging.
On the nature of Gropecunt he too speaks freely, although he prefers to call it the 'Refuge', the other name, he insists, represents only Ingrid's past. Not the present or the future. The Refuge is a halfway house for the afflicted of Nuln. A reciprocal arrangement whereby those who are free of the influence of evil are offered safe passage out of Nuln to the Border Princes from where they 'have at least a chance'. In the city, he points out, they have none whatsoever. If they are not hunted and burned for their supposed crime by fanatics of every denomination, they are forced in to the arms of the sullied and the vile: Lotte and others like her, agents of malign powers.
Of the 'witch' he tells Betta that hers is 'one of several' competing cults that he knows of. He stresses that those who abase themselves before wicked idols are not to be pitied. Especially those, as she, that seek the 'patronage of demons'. They collect the weak and the insane under their sway and covet power and 'malign favours'. That death in the flames might be preferable to falling in to their malicious orbit he is unequivocal. Why they attacked the Refuge is a bone of contention; it seems that in the 'secret struggle' that plays out among the derelict and depopulated Faulestadt, the greatest crime is to try to remain neutral.
On Ingrid herself he is surprisingly ambivalent, referring to her as 'just another vulnerable, destitute and senile old woman'. Of her role as Madam and that sordid history he feigns ignorance, save only to say that there are many irregularities about 'Ygritte' and that she represents something of an enigma, even to him. Curiously he does not seem to possess Betta's ability to 'read' others, or simply chooses not to share what he knows.
On Magick he is cautious and tight lipped but says his order harbours those free of taint. He himself was taken at an early age and 'spared his family great pain'. He talks also of the thrill of unguarded honesty and how it defined his early acceptance of his 'gifts' and of his delight to meet a fellow student 'of the arts' after so many long years. It does not appear, at least superficially, that Mattias fully understands the scope of Betta's abilities and she tactfully avoids any further confidences.
The two of them sit in awkward silence for a few moments, Betta able to read the flinch in his expression clearly.
Encouraged by the stillness a pointed furry face emerges from a fold of his white and blue trimmed robes, pink nose first. Tiny pupil-less black eyes fixed on Betta, the animal freezes. The creature's fur shines pure white in the firelight. High haunches followed by a sleek bald tail. Its body alone ten inches long, balls the size of walnuts.
"Who's my sweetheart, then .. ?" Mattias whispers. Two more rats come out on to his shoulders. One yellow, marked with a sepia brown at the haunches, toes and muzzle. The other, Betta would swear if the light was better, is pale enough slate-grey to appear blue. Two more sets of beady eyes fix on her. "Sweetheart," he breathes to the pale blue rat. He cups his hand and strokes the rodent's arched back. It turns its head and licks his fingers with a clean pink tongue. "Touch her, she won't hurt you.."
Mesmerised Betta sets aside her plate and reaches out an extremely reluctant finger. She touches surprisingly soft, surprisingly dry fur. The beast moves. Tiny claws fix in to Betta's forefinger - she flinches - but they do not break the skin. The pale blue rat sniffs at her bitten dirty nails. It begins to lick Betta, sits back and sneezes twice - a tiny absurd sound - before sitting up on her haunches, rubbing paws over her muzzle and whiskers, cleaning away the transferred skin grease.
"They are a hobby, nothing more." Mattias smiles reassuringly, wholesomely and sincerely. "Betta, I know precisely what you are, but for the sake of expediency, Ingrid must also," he adds tentatively. "She is dying but she is still the mistress here and we Laymen cannot allow the pestilence of the fallen to infect the good work we do here and beyond. You might know that Shallya forbids the use of force, that the Temple sponsors no military order, that even we lay brothers who give ourselves over to this struggle, do so without hate, without prejudice."
"Surely I can try to ease her pain, it is the least I can do for her given the circumstances?"
Mattias seems genuinely taken aback with Betta's sincerity. "You are welcome to try, but I have exhausted myself several times trying to prolong her existence. I think it is already well beyond her appointed time."
He turns away, his pale face becoming bleak.
"We're still at war, whether we want it not. You saw that coming in," he says, voice unsteady. "Whatever victory we have tonight, you see how it can't be final. We were resigned to that, but your appearance, and your .. sort of friends," he smiles warmly. "They, you, were sent to us, child." He says the word 'child' with total confidence, despite clearly being five years her junior. He smiles at her again then, teeth shining.
"I could help continue the good work once she's dead, er - gone, I mean passed on! - Er sorry." Betta offers clumsily.
"I think you know that is not what I am asking," Mattias pleads. "You have a very rare talent Betta. I could guide you, if you'd allow me."
Betta demures, "I'm sure the others will want to help too, once they understand the situation .."
He stands up, the rats squick back in to his gown as he bends over to offer Betta his arm. Together, he leads her to the door.
"It's late. Sleep on it. Ingrid's rooms are on the third floor, she won't be moving from here tonight. There is a bath and toilette and I'm sure there's something suitable in your .. size. I'll have water brought up."
As they step out on to the landing, Mattias acknowledges Katalin with a slight start. Nodding to Magnus also, after a moment's hesitation. "Magnus, show Betta to Frau Ingrid's quarters and have hot water brought upstairs, if you would be so kind." He pats Betta's arm and lets her go, returning to keep his vigil over Ingrid.
I am to nerds what nerds are to normal people.
The air upstairs has the dry odour of age, the fireplace is a wrought iron grate in the fashion of a sleeping feline, the kindling damp and resistant to Magnus's attempts to coax it in to being. Even when lit it smoulders, the updraft from the ancient chimney barely sufficient to draw all the smoke out of the room and seems more disposed to going out than burning up. Moons light sparkles through a great circular window offering brief smudged glimpses between banks of fog of the herb garden and beyond the uneven lawn. Torches flicker like tiny pin pricks in the distance, illuminating shadowy forms that labour with shovels, turning the frozen earth of the rose garden in to a makeshift grave. The filthy glass soon fogs over with condensation and the handle remains stubbornly glued in place, resisting all efforts to budge it.
The suite itself is spacious and must once have been quite handsome, but every discernible thing within is covered in a thick layer of dust, the plaster work pock marked with patches of a dark musty smelling mould and in many places dropping to pieces. The most prominent object is a handsome four poster bed with hand carved finials and exquisite caving detail. A hunting scene is carved in to the dark wood of the headboard in which antique looking gallants stalk a naked damsel draped in a goatskin through a forest of twisted trees, each with a leering face cut in to its trunk. The canopy sags and runs threadbare but was clearly once very finely embroidered with gold thread and trimmed with lace and many coloured glass beads that jingle in the draft from the open door.
Opposite stands a chaise longue, itself beautifully adorned with faded velvet and draped in a heavy linen table cloth although laid in preparation for a great feast. The centre piece is a mass of cobwebs, unidentifiable, now home only to spiders and other many legged things that scatter from the unwelcome and unfamiliar candlelight.
The bath is the only fixture in the chamber that appears well maintained. The waxed linen lining glistens with beads of damp that stream down the sides in to a small oily pool collected in the bottom. Magnus stands on one of the ornate stools at the foot of the bed to light a thin forest of yellow candle stalks on the shelf above before excusing himself in search of hot water.
Betta's eye is drawn first to a pile of leather bound books stacked in an alcove behind the bath. The light is poor but she can make out a few titles: Sophistics elenchis, Analytica and other foreign words which mean nothing to her. One well thumbed tome entitled Unchanging Lady stands open, folded neatly. The pages however are mouldy and the text discoloured and unreadable.
The bath shelf, a rustic plank of oak bearing a striking resemblance to a floor board from downstairs, is covered in a scattering of brittle walnut shells, a delicate crystal glass containing pungent residue, a cane covered bottle stoppered with a rag containing a dark foul smelling spirit and a tray of yellowing wafer biscuits stacked neatly on top of each other.
A long gallery mirror looms in the corner of the room, casting back a many hued halo from the fireplace that hurts the eyes. Opposite which is a dresser in mahogany littered with trinkets and toiletries long since evaporated. Inside a calamander vanity box with brass crossbanding are many exquisite cut glass containers with engraved silver lids. Velvet lined it holds many tools with mother of pearl handles that look as wonderful as the day they were made. A writing set rests in the topmost tray, a small blotter with a crystal handle and an exquisite ivory dip pen with a semi-precious stone nib. A removable free standing mirror reveals a gold tooled leather book signed: Dürer, Hersteller seiner Majestät. 211 Aubenstrasse, Nuln.
The pages within are scrawled in perniciously neat but wilfully flirtatious handwritten script. The accents on the characters fluid and expressive, the overall effect strikingly beautiful and individual enough to be surprisingly difficult to read. Squinting Betta makes out only a few lines in a complicated array of what look like diary entries. The dialect is obfuscated in metaphor and uses many words and symbols that she is unfamiliar with: 'epicycles', 'deferents' and 'equants'.
What little she can discern is abstracted and nonsensical:
Guiraut bragging that he knows how to tell a true noble from a base man by his wit...
In fact, she may be wholly imaginary..
Can theoretically lead to death; but the poet darkly hints at a more serious loss..
The sound of a child's laughter suddenly fills the chamber. A screech of mirth. Startled Betta jumps and dropping the book whirls around to see a slender girl, aged around six, with dirty blonde hair and an ugly brown growth in her neck. She is laughing and pointing at the window. "Little man! Little man come back!" she squeals excitedly. Heart racing Betta follows the child's finger but sees nothing.
"Now Mol, what are you doing up here?" Magnus reappears carrying a pitcher of steaming water and isn't surprised to see the girl. He sets down the pitcher and places a hand on the child's head and squeezes. She looks up at him and giggles, dark pupils vacant and pinned on a point in the distance, far, far beyond the room she stands in. Magnus gives her a prod in the chest and produces some sweet morsel from one of his pockets. The child snatches it and skips away.
He smiles reassuringly at Betta but his eyes are emotionless and betray no warmth. As he fills the bath, heaving the pitcher effortlessly with his right hand and tipping the hot water out, he clumsily splashes the books and biscuits which crumble and swell up on the platter. "Don't mind Mol, she's touched. You get used to it."
Once finished he tilts his head and bites his lip nervously before moving silently over to the door and craning to check the stairwell beyond is free from eavesdroppers. Satisfied, he slowly closes the door and places it on the latch before grasping Betta firmly by the arm and marching her over to stand before the fire. As she begins to form a frown he gazes intently in to her purple eyes as if searching her soul for the kernel of corruption he suspects lays within.
Seeing that she is panicked he finally breaks the silence, whispering conspiratorially below the sound of damp wood popping and hissing in the hearth.
"You are in grave danger and I think we can help each other out .."
I am to nerds what nerds are to normal people.
Captivated by the once splendid surroundings and with her head still whirling from the intoxicating atmosphere and confusing words spoken downstairs Magnus' rough handling jerks Betta back to reality. Squirming against his grip she spits with fiery venom, "No! Unhand me! I am no whore to be used by the likes of you!" Simultaneously her free hand rises up in defence.
Then hearing his words she stops frozen and returns his stare, "Danger? But you saved us? Ingrid made threats but she's dying and not all um there? Mattias said I was special and he could help me .. but those creatures? Was he lying, even mocking me?" She demands angrily, "Are you now mocking me?"
Hackles rising again, "Tell me what is this place really? What is this danger of which you speak? How can we help each other? Out with it now! No more lies! Or else!" Her free hand is now raised under Magnus' chin with a tiny pin held just gently pricking his skin.
"Yes I did save you," replies Magnus in firm but hushed tones whilst batting away the pin with his bound up arm. "I was beginning to think you had forgotten!" He eases his grip on Betta's elbow. "I mean you no harm, but Ingrid's threats should never be taken lightly. She is a parasite who preys on the weak and desperate!"
"I need out of this wretched pit of corruption, and I can guide you safely through Nuln, as your group doesn't seem particularly streetwise. I've already rescued you from Lotte and her minions as well as sparing you from becoming target practice for the lads. I think you owe me that, but I want a favour in return.."
A look of desperation appears on his face, eyes pleading, "I can't leave the likes of Mol to fend for themselves. I need you to speak to Mattias to ensure he looks after the others and protects them from harm. He's taken an interest in you and will listen to you, but sees me as just another one of Ingrid's heavy handed goons."
Realising the futility of her situation, idle threat brushed away, Betta splutters. "But, how are we to ever escape this place? Surely if what you say is true Ingrid will never allow it? You are right, we can't leave these poor people alone and without protection. I had hoped I might be able to stay here and help but your words tell me I would not be safe even here. I must keep moving on, never stay in one place too long ... don't let them suspect." She mutters lost in anguished thought. Then mind resolved, "Tell me what we must do. I can try to speak with Mattias but can he be trusted? Is he what he says he is? Those pets? Will he even listen to me?"
Magnus thinks carefully for a moment, confused by the word pets, before replying, "Mattias is indeed key to this. The lads look up to him more and more with Ingrid's failing health. He's only been around a few months, but seems to have a genuine compassion for the afflicted who pass through here. Even for Ingrid .." A look of bemusement plain to see on Magnus' face.
"Ingrid always takes a .." Magnus pauses looking for the correct phrase, "'Special interest in gifted individuals such as yourself, but has no use at all for your companions, especially the dwarf. It would be best for all concerned if we could secure Mattias' agreement to our safe passage out of here. As the alternative.." A concerned look crosses Magnus' face as his voice tapers off.
Betta sighs, "Umh, alright. I will try to speak to Mattias tomorrow, but in return you must warn the others and see that they are ready to flee. Can you arrange for their belongings to be returned or at least provide them with arms so that they can defend themselves should it come to the worst?"
Magnus meets Betta's eyes and nods once, before turning and taking his leave. She watches him retreat down the steps before loosening the straps of her bodice and hitching the filthy mass of fabric off over her head. Testing the bath water, she stops short of getting in, thinking for a moment, staring at her reflection in the mirror. Eventually, she stands and clumsily manhandles a heavy looking chair in front of the chamber door, resting the oak lip against the handle. Only then does she slide in to the steaming water with a sigh.
Downstairs, Magnus skirts round the gaggle of bodies by the main hearth, casting an icy stare at Siegfried who seems by now quite inebriated and is bawling incoherently and flailing his bottle of spirit around. Katalin sits on a low chair at the table, his back to the flames. He eats a gristly haunch of Magnus knows not what, eyes alert, carving knife laid beside him on the tablecloth. Dieter sits propped against the plaster work near Waldermar, the two engaged in a private conversation over bowls of the porridge like small ale served to the 'guests'. The horseman seems a little groggy, the whole left hand side of his face an angry puffed up mess. The eye swollen shut. The stitches raw and inexpertly applied weep puss and blood, and yet he still manages a painful smile between mouthfuls as the teenage fisherman reaches the punch line of whatever filthy joke he is telling.
Magnus nods to the two guards by the door as he passes. Neither show any inclination to speak with the younger man, content instead to let their eyes follow his progress toward the dwarf. Seating himself opposite he leans in close and engages Katalin in conversation. After a few minutes the dwarf wipes the grease off his stubby fingers with a napkin before reaching across Magnus to pour himself a fresh mug of ale.
"OK, young Magnus. If you say so," he chuckles almost sarcastically. "I could tell something was amiss upstairs. Felt it in my bristles, you know?" He grins mirthless at the young man opposite, speaking quickly and quietly. "Anyway, I'm ready. Just say the word. As long as I've my axe and armour I'm fair set to leave this place in an instant. I'll spread the word to our party and shift them out when the time comes."
As the night wears on the guards disappear from their spot by the door. Siegfried, mercifully, passes out, snoring loudly. Katalin splits the watch with Dieter and the two of them catch as much sleep as they dare. The chimes of a distant long case clock ring out the hours, counting down the darkness. It is Katalin who remains awake, when, around dawn, a robed figure descends the staircase, his floor length gown of white wool dirty in the gloom. Squinting through tired eyes Katalin recognises the monk Mattias. He looks exhausted, dark circles under his eyes and a pallid complexion that makes him seem ancient. If he sees Katalin he does not acknowledge him. He quickly disappears down a passageway toward the apartments at the rear of the scullery.
A few hours later Gropecunt begins to come to life again. Men and women come and go, refugees rouse and begin their morning rituals. Dieter heads outside to refill a large earthenware jug with spring water, and for the first time in what feels like an age the sun's rays pierce the gloomy fog and dance off the edges of the shuttered windows.
As the group break fast with a stale sour dough and near frozen butter, the sallow man from the night before detaches himself from the throng and greets Katalin. "We move on today, by boat, they say. Up the Reik, out toward the Grey Mountains .." He breaks off, his expression somewhere between fear and disapproval but mostly just fear of the consequences if he divulges too much. He carries a bundle in his arms. A roll of cloth that he lays on the table opposite. Sorting through the contents he removes a wooden child's toy. Carved in boxwood, it is a clumsy icon of Shallya, a few inches tall. He fetches it out and hands it to the confused dwarf. "Mol said you'd need this, where you're going. She wants you to have it anyway .."
One of the men nearby says something, gesturing. Silence settles on the room. Pale faces, young and old, from every corner stop what they are doing, packed elbow to elbow, and stare agog at the figure descending the stairs. She wears a fine textured linen shirt and hose, laced to the navel. Over the top a patterned chemise and twill bodice. The colour a little faded now, but once magnificent blood orange that matches her flame red hair. Soft tendrils of which hang loosely in the front with a great looping braid in the back. To top it off she has a beautiful black velvet muffin cap perched on her head, the tails flowing off her shoulders and down her slender torso. The brim stitched with tiny mother of pearl discs and crescents and finished with a garnish of shimmering green duck feathers.
As she glides down the stairs she lifts the hem of a thick black wool and velvet demi-gown, silver buttons down the front, with the 'rack of lamb' sleeves embroidered with dozens of thorny red roses in bloom. Each delicate flower framed with five intricately stitched triangles. At her waist hangs a ring belt, woven with filigree and silver wire, a purse hanging loosely from a fold of tooled leather, bound shut with a coiled spring.
As Betta looks nervously at the many dirty faces gawping at her, she dips her head and strides over to Katalin, blushing. She arrives in a flurry of skirts and perfume. She straightens her shoulders, powdered head coming up defiantly.
"Let's go see Mattias," she growls, shooting a challenging glance at the others.
I am to nerds what nerds are to normal people.
Waldermar stares incredulously at Betta and her grand entrance, nudging Siegfried, "Blimey what happened to her?!"
He gets to his feet, still slightly groggy from the previous evening's excitement, and fumbles around stuffing his few meager possessions into his backpack. "Sounds good to me. I don't want to stay hear any longer than I have to," he replies quietly.
Katalin collects his tankard and cutlery from the table, including Mol's wooden Shallya doll, and the carving knife which he's been using to re-fettle the doll's details, "Ready when you are, Missy."
He makes to join Betta, whispering to Waldemar as he passes, "Pull your tongue back in, Rider. You're making the miss uncomfortable. Betta's going to talk the cleric 'round to waving us off on our way - with that Magnus coming along too, it looks like. He's clear that old Ingrid's plans for us won't be to our liking. So let's stay sharp, eh?" He punches the giant man in the hip playfully, "I find its best to expect the worst in a spot like this."
Betta smiles at Waldemar for his generous attention then coyly thanks Katlin for his noble behavior. She quickly updates the others on what has happened since they arrived, but omits her feeble attempt to intimidate Magnus. In hushed tones she states that in her opinion Magnus is their best chance of getting out of here, but that she believes they need to remain wary of his ultimate agenda.
As she talks, she fusses over Waldermar's stitches, producing a pungent phial of resin from one of her many new pockets. The stuff fumes enough to make his eyes water, but offers immediate relief from the uncomfortable sensation of sewn flesh. Satisifed, she checks the strapping on Dieter's ribs is good and tight. An angry purple bruise peaks out from under the bandages and he moves a little stiffly as he helps Waldermar pack their things, his eyes dark lined and red from the limited sleep snatched during last night's watch.
Siegfried remains silent throughout, pouting. He chimes in sarcastically after Betta lays out her plan, "Yes boss!"
His bloodshot eyes and swollen lips betray a titanic hangover. The bleak expression is as usual effortlessly intimidating but he seems aware enough that reality is what the group consensus says it is, gingerly allowing Betta to lift his puffed up lips and inspect the gaps where his teeth used to be. She declares him fortunate, the liquour having done the work of cleaning out the sockets and notes each has clotted over nicely.
Magnus eventually re-appears and leads the group down a narrow corridor at the rear of the scullery, having to barge his way through gaggles of afflicted as they wait apprehensively for the word to move out. The room you enter is sparse and tiny, more like a cell. There are steel grills on the tiny window and iron bars on the door. A curtain divides the chamber, draped from a trestle affixed in the low ceiling. He quickly yanks the cloth aside and allows the group to retrieve their equipment from the many loose crates stacked against the wall.
For himself he selects a tattered cloak and a sackcloth hood and dusts off an ancient looking leather jerkin, reinforced with tarnished hobnails. Waldermar's saddle is curiously missing, no doubt looted or abandoned in the alley. As is his wide brimmed hat. Siegfried curses when he notes that his precious crossbow is scratched and notched from being dropped in the alley. The string at least is intact.
A man's voice outside the door says something too muffled to identify, followed by the sound of boots on stone. Magnus leaps like a coiled spring, grabbing the door and yanking it open to peer beyond, just in time to see guards moving quickly past the portal. He barks a challenge confidently, off hand automatically straying to the scabbard at his waist. "Ingrid is dead!" comes the sudden unexpected reply. Allowing a few moments for the news to sink in, Magnus watches the men disappear round the corner before turning and gesturing the others to follow him outside.
Armed men loiter at the top of the stairwell. The group push their way through the crush of bodies, the chamber beyond packed with any number of people. Katalin spies Mol playing with a bitch and her litter in the straw by the hearth. Ingrid lays on a truckle-bed, a box frame vessel hastily assembled for the exhibition of her remains. As they approach, the group see Mattias by the long table, engaged in many simultaneous conversations. He clearly has not slept, eyes dark and sunken and features pale and drawn. A day's growth shadows his neck and chin and he looks suddenly far older than his tender years."We will speak privately!" Mattias orders upon seeing Betta and many pairs of eyes suddenly attach themselves to the interlopers. Not all devoid of hostility.
Mattias cuts a pitiful figure, his black hair greased from perspiration, sweat-tangled to his skin. "Send your men away, Magnus!" He commands, this time more forcefully. People begin to reluctantly file out of the chamber, but one or two guards loiter uncertainly, noticing that the group have their weapons back.
Ingrid's skeletal form is covered with a shroud, her withered features obscured. Only two coins where her eyes would be give the impression there is indeed the body of an old woman underneath. The stink in the room lingers though, a covered bucket of fluids at the foot of the pallet bed the culprit, hinting at a painful transition. Magnus glances toward the body before addressing the men at the door in a conciliatory tone. They seem to have as much to say to each other as to Magnus but they eventually clear out.
Mattias crosses the two yards space in a stride and stands before Betta, his eyes momentarily alight at her appearance before the strain of exhaustion shows through again. "We have much to say to each other," he announces loud enough for everyone to hear.
"But first, come, look .. " He leads her to the window, the leaded glass panes flooded with magnificent morning sunlight. Outside, distorted by the condensation, Betta sees people, afflicted, waiting in line to be counted out in twos and threes. Their meager belongings trussed up in sacks and sling bags. Their many abnormalities concealed in layers of heavy winter clothing. Mattias follows Betta's squinting eyes, "They go now to the Shantytown and from there out of the city, to their new lives. Freedom, Betta! Hope." There is no intent in his words, only tiredness and a kind of joy.
"It all now hangs in the balance," he says lightly. "The link is broken with Ingrid's passing. Those who profited from this enterprise will doubtless install another monster here. Unless.." He reaches out among the papers stacked on the long table, uncovering one, reading aloud sotto voce:
Schatzheimers have the package but have reneged on their contract and now want tripple the fee. O. surprised everyone by agreeing, which made them wonder just how badly he wants it - and us just how stupid they are.
D has been involving himself too.
Tell O. that we can get it back but we want a slice of the freak show plus expenses.
After a silence Mattias flicks a furtive glance at the group, "I ask you to retrieve this package. I ask you to discover who 'O' is and what stake he or she has in Ingrid's affairs. I want," he says cautiously, looking at each of the group keenly, "to use it to barter for the future of these people."
Siegfried loiters to Betta's left and stares back impassively, bored and irritable. Waldermar and Katalin framed by Dieter each looking relieved and anxious in turn.
"I will not force you," Mattias pleads, his tired eyes shut momentarily, he pinches the bridge of his nose, before looking intently at them again. "I will not compel you in any way to help us, but I ask you do it. I will help you in any way that I can; council, provisions, the connections - such as they are - of the Laymen. Name help, and you shall have it."
"I work for coin not love, monk," bawls Siegfried dismissively. "What's in it for me?"
Mattias meets the bounty hunter's gaze calmly, neither judgement or condemnation in his face. He sighs and turns to the others.
I am to nerds what nerds are to normal people.
Katalin glances at Mol sprawled in the straw by the hearth, head resting on the bitches ribs as they rise and fall, humming to herself tunelessly. Oblivious to everyone and everything. "What happens to these poor folk if we just walk away, Monk?"
Siegfried scowls, his bloodshot eyes suddenly full of fire. "Same thing that happens whatever this fool says!" He barks at Katalin. "Cept worse for the pretty ones - those suffer before they burn em'."
He points at Mattias accusingly, "He's touched look at him, I wouldn't be surprised if the old whore died an unnatural death neither."
An uncomfortable silence descends on the room.
For a moment the briefest look of irritation and pain flashes across Waldermar's face, he tilts his head to one side better allowing his one good eye to see the young monk, squinting. "Mattias I'm willing to help you if you help us in return."
The horseman's voice cracks and trails off painfully, but sensing another outburst from Siegfried he pushes on through swollen lips. "For starters I want to know what's happened to my possessions, I had a saddle and harness in the alley now it's gone. Did any of your men perchance pick it up? Also the letter you speak of, what is the package and who are the people it speaks of: the Schatzheimers, H and D? We can't just go blindly into this! Give us some answers!"
Siegfried still enraged rounds on Waldermar, transferring his angry finger from the monk to the taller man's mutilated face. "You really want to go with some stupid fuck who'll get us all killed?" He screams, standing on his toes, bloody drool spraying forth. "Its not a different game because he's wearing a monk's habit. You fuck off the wrong people, we're all fucked!"
Dieter curses Siegfried and takes a step forward but Waldermar raises a long arm across his chest, barring his passage. The young fisherman glares at Siegfried angrily but holds his tongue.
Betta, utterly unfazed by the Strilanders increasingly foul mouthed outbursts chimes in sarcastically, "Yes Boss!' Hah! If anyone should be taking the lead around here it should be you! By the looks of it you've had plenty of experience of this sort of thing! If its a conscience your looking for there is a room full of trinkets upstairs that Ingrid won't be needing anymore - with Mattias' permission why don't you go up there and buy yourself one!"
Siegfried recoils, face red with barely suppressed rage, the veins at his temples bulging, beads of sweat glistening on his filthy skin. He makes balls of his fists and looks for all the world like he is about to explode in to violence but somehow holds himself in check. Slit-eyed, he growls and turning away slams his fist hard on the table, scattering crockery and causing the floor boards to shake.
Golden light from the window catches Mattias' pale face as he turns to address the bounty hunter through the expanding cloud of dust, solemnly, palms outstretched, beseeching calm. "The burghers and nobles of this city spend half their time at war among themselves. One side gains the upper hand, then the other. At the end of each battle they all sit down and exchange pleasantries over wine and quail! Only the little people do the bleeding, the suffering .. "
Mattias' fingers knot in to the filthy fabric of his habit, "Whatever this package is, it has immense value. And yet, ask yourself Stirlander - why do they not just have the Black Shirts go door to door until they find it? I don't know what it means, but I am trying to be pragmatic. If we had it, there is a chance of brokering a deal. If it lasts even a short while, many innocent lives will be saved from the Sigmarite pyres!"
Betta begins speaking almost before Mattias finishes his sermon, "What happens to these people after they leave here, where do they go?" She asks bluntly. "What do you mean by others having profited from this enterprise? Who are they? Do you have any suspicions about who O is? What about D & H?"
Turning to face her, the monk continues, "The Schatzheimers are one of the more notorious street gangs operating over the river. I've heard they control the Mason's Union. I'm sure smuggling is one of their many sidelines." His fingers relax and he brings his hands together, folding the palm of each in to the sleeves of his robe. "That is all I can tell you.."
On the matter of Waldermar's missing possessions he promises to investigate but, apologetically, makes it clear that they are likely long gone.
Katalin's eyes narrow. "So, let's get this straight, Mattias: you expect us to trot over to the other side of the city and take on an entire Nulner street gang for you?" He makes two legs with his stubby fingers and waggles them theatrically. "Make sense man!"
The Dwarf makes eye contact with each of his companions, hard eyes lingering dubiously on Betta before adding dead-pan, "Am I missing something here? Even if I was inclined to help your people, which," he pauses for effect, fixing a narrow eye on Siegfried, "I might just be. How are you imagining this plays out? My guess is that if or when we find the gentlemen in question, they won't just hand over whatever it is we are after when we ask nicely..."
Mattias makes to reply but Katalin shushes him with a shrill whistle that makes the bitch start and sit up to attention, scattering Mol who begins to rock back and forth knees tucked under her chin. The Dwarf sighs and adds, matter of fact, "And frankly, lad, even in some world where we deliver this object of great value into your hands, I don't see you bargaining Ingrid's masters 'round. They will come here. They will take it away from you. They will kill you. They will kill Mol. They will kill us. Or have I grabbed the wrong end of the poker somehow? You tell me."
The monk stoops to collect a two headed dove embossed goblet from the straw at his feet, setting it back on the table reverently. Sighing he collapses in to one of the chairs opposite, resting his elbows on the table and smoothing back his lank greasy black hair. He speaks dejectedly without looking up at the Dwarf. "I am not so naive that I don't appreciate the danger. It is not my intention to withhold the package or provoke violence. I ask only that you investigate discreetly and if possible obtain the package. Once we have it, we can better judge the best course of action.."
Magnus, hitherto uninvolved in the discussion also seats himself at the table and fills two goblets of wine, one he hands to the bounty hunter who hesitates a moment before snatching it from the mailed glove covering the teenager's right hand, the other he passes to Betta before speaking deliberately and dispassionately, "O is likely to be Oldenhaller, Nulner old money, a large and powerful family. No idea which one as there are hundreds of em, although Albrecht is head of the family and I can't imagine something happening without his say so.."
Mattias head snaps up, eyes suddenly animated again. "Oldenhaller! Of course. The Oldenhallers are renowned for always honouring their contracts. The language in the note! It makes sense now. If one of them is pulling the strings here then there is every chance they will deal with me provided they get what they want. Be wary though - the Oldenhallers may be like fleas on a dog, but Albrecht's machinations are legendary. It's commonly assumed he will be Doge if not Count in Nuln some day.."
Magnus nods and takes a generous gulp from his own goblet before continuing, "H could well be Dirck Huyderman, he runs the trafficking operation from Shantytown, but the tone of the note 'freak show' makes me uncertain of this from what I've heard of him."
"No, no, no! Impossible. Dirck Huyderman is a pious man. I have met him. A pragmatist and quite mercenary but not, I think, our villain. I doubt that very much," exclaims Mattias. "His own son was afflicted. That is what brought him in to our fold originally. It is Huyderman who provides the afflicted their route out of Nuln. The Huyderman company operate a dozen barges moving hundreds of thousands of tonnes of sand and gravel upriver. I find it hard to believe he could be the H. mentioned here. He had no love for Ingrid."
"This all started at the Kaiserschnitzel," Betta says thoughtfully. "Perhaps we should head back there and see what Herr Böhm has got to say for himself about last nights events and the contents of this letter? He seemed happy enough to talk freely to strangers last night and I am sure we would all like to have a word with him!"
"I'd certainly like to have a word with him," drawls Siegfried between greedy mouthfuls of wine.
Magnus raises his eyebrows and looks at Betta. "Perhaps you best leave the discreet questioning to me, as your manhunter friend so astutely put it: upset the wrong people and we're all fucked!"
Katalin knuckles his forehead. "The 'schnitzel... Aye! Wasn't there talk of a missing bauble there last night? And a Herr Diedtz wanting it back. If this bauble and Mattias' package are connected, maybe D is Diedtz?
Satisfied with the presumption Betta places her goblet on the table untouched. "Magnus makes sense - 'Set a thief to catch a thief' as Granny used to say." She looks sheepishly at the boy. "Um sorry, no offense meant."
"Heading back to that flea-pit makes sense to me," Katalin announces, mind made up. "The barman there's got a few questions to answer, right enough."
Betta nods and continues speaking to Magnus, "You and your men seem to know your way around these parts? What do you know about The Schatzheimers?"
"They're all business. Stay out of the low level stuff. They run the Masons Union contracts over the river," Magnus explains. Adding all that he knows about the Alum Cartel and the various street level outfits Gropecunt has come in to contact with. "Honestly, I don't know why they would be involved in all this or how. Crossing the Oldenhallers is, putting it bluntly, insane.."
As he speaks, Betta whispers quickly to Katalin, "Aren't er-your er-kind familiar with stonework? Do you think you could find someone - er-similar to er-you to talk to about the Mason's Union perhaps they might know more about these Schatzheimers? Sorry I haven't met many er-Dwarfs before.."
Katalin frowns and replies irritably, "I'm no stone-mason! I'm not even sure if Dwarves are involved in Nulner guilds." He adds conciliatorily, "But I agree that we might make more progress with the Schatzheimers if we nose around carefully.."
"Please be circumspect," warns Mattias. "You do indeed gamble more than just your own lives. Trust Magnus! He understands this city better than anyone else I know."
"Ok then!" chimes Betta cheerfully, in stark contrast to the prevalent mood. "Its decided. I'm with Katalin and Magnus and all for heading over to the Kaiserschnitzel to ask a few discrete questions - Waldermar, Dieter, Siegfried will you come with us we could really do with your help?"
Waldermar ponders this for a moment then nods his head ever so slightly, signalling his assent. "OK I'm in, but I'm keen to get payment for this: for our services and to replace what was stolen from me. If we need to get close to Diedtz I think the best bet, as mentioned is locate Harry."
Siegfried polishes off another goblet of wine, spilling most of it down his jerkin. Belching, he stands and grins dead eyed at Betta, before strolling over to where Ingrid's shrouded corpse lays on the boxes. He contemplates the withered body for a moment, bathed in glorious winter sunshine, before reaching down and plucking one of the two ceremonial gold coins from her eyes. Raising it to his swollen lips he nibbles cautiously, "Brass." He spits and holds it up for all to see, glinting in the light, before slipping it in to his jerkin, adding with a cynical snort, "Retainer."
I am to nerds what nerds are to normal people.