Sunday, 5 June 2011
#SampleSunday – 5th June 2011
Late in The Last King's Amulet, Sumto and Sapphire have infiltrated a northern stronghold on a rescue mission of their own. Sumto finds that significant quantities of booze are needed to hide his mind from the magically twisted pack of dogs that hunt him by the stone in his forehead. It's been a fun trip, but it's nearly over.
Torches lit the scene, the flames reflected in the dark water of the moat, pooling round each torch bearer, dancing on the walls of the stronghold. As the barbarians walked across the bridge in single file the crowd clustered at our side of the bridge was slowly thinning. We tacked ourselves onto the back of the group that waiting their turn without incident, and stepped out onto the bridge when it came around to our turn. Ahead of us they passed through the small gate one at a time, torchlight dancing inside and fading, dancing and fading, until it was our turn to pass inside, Sapphire ahead of me and no one behind apart from four bored guards who had eyed us disinterestedly. The bridge was wide enough so that one man could walk without difficulty, but not so wide that two could pass or walk together without risk of being pitched into the dark waters only five feet or so below. I was relieved to make it to the end of the bridge.
A long corridor stretched away from the door, and to either side narrow but tall passages led inside the wall, all lit by torches paced at twenty foot intervals. It must have been fifty or sixty feet away, the doorway where Sheo stood facing us in the broad doorway, watching the new arrivals impassively, our gazes meeting for an instant. He didn't react but I froze for a moment, a thrill of anticipation running through me, before I stepped out of his line of sight. No half-expected shout of alarm followed me. I tried to imagine what he would do, tried to guess what he was thinking; was Kukran Epthel here? Was Sheo still in thrall to him? Would Sheo send men after me? I strode after Sapphire, my heart hammering in my chest, nerves frayed. He had moved silently into one of the side passages and ghosted along the corridor ahead of me, moving fast, passing in and out of light and gloom; and I followed, less assured, head pounding and belly rebelling. Our own shadows danced around us. He turned a corner and I sped after him. Sheo is here, I wanted to yell. He saw me! But yelling didn't seem like a brilliant idea under the circumstances so I hurried to catch him, holding in the fear, aware that Sheo had not instantly raised the alarm, hoping he was free of Kukran's influence, an ally, biding his time, or perhaps that Kukran was destroyed and Sheo here for some other reason. The fear of the unknown was almost worse than the fear that we would be discovered and find ourselves back in the power of the lich. The thought of that made me shudder. Dubaku was not invisibly near to save us, this time we would face Kukran alone.
When I turned the corridor, Sapphire's forearm was locked around the throat of an Alendi, his free arm gripping a wrist to keep that one from reaching his knife. Red faced and eyes bulging the Alendi struggled and failed to break free.
“Where is Tahal Samant?” Sapphire hissed the question fiercely in the man's ear. “Tell me and live, keep silent and die. Where is he?”
“Vaults,” the Alendi squeezed the words through his closed throat, “In the vaults.”
Instantly Sapphire release his grip, hands moving with smooth precision, one hand cupping the Alendi's bearded chin, the other coming to the back of his head. He wrenched fast and hard and a sound like a green branch breaking rang out, echoing dully from the walls. Sapphire caught the man as he fell and dragged him a few yards to the bottom of a stair well and dropping the body. Grabbing the lolling head he smashed it three times in quick succession against the stone floor. Despite myself, I winced, stalled where I had been following. I shuddered at the calm indifference with which Sapphire handled the body and I reached for the bottle. As I downed a good swallow of the fiery liquid, Sapphire briefly examined his handiwork; satisfied he grabbed the man's legs and heaved the body into the stairwell, leaving it looking as though the man had fallen, legs and arms twisted randomly awry.
“Sheo is here. He saw me,” I remembered to say. It was important, though I didn't know what we would do about it.
Shadows danced across Sapphire's face as he looked at me, face calm as stone, cold gaze locked on mine. “We split up,” he told me. “Look for the vaults. If you are captured I'll get you out.”
He snatched the bottle from my hand, poured some grotesquely into the corpses mouth and ghosted up the stairs. After three steps he dashed the bottle on a stair, discarding it and it's contents, and then was gone.
I stared in shock at the broken bottle, glass shards winking in the wavering light and precious liquid dripping on the stairs. He'd broken it. He'd thrown away my whiskey. And it was the last bottle. What had he said? Find the vaults. Right. I looked at the corner round which I had come, then turned away and lurched down the corridor. Easy to say, find the vaults, but what was I going to do? Ask someone? Well, I thought, why not? Barbarians would need to know the way more often than spies and infiltrators, surely?
If only I could remember what clan we were, just in case I was asked.
A drunk can get away with anything, I decided. No one expects them to be coherent or sensible. All they saw was a wasted Alendi about some business he was not fit to complete. They smiled in sympathy or snorted in derision, either way not seeing me as a threat.
I'd grabbed a door frame, leaned drunkenly into a room full of men taking their ease, lifted a jug of ale and taken a swig while the owner protested, then asked where the vaults were.
“If you're going to the vaults, you can get your own beer,” one of them told me.
“Under your feet, where do you think?” Another had called, contemptuously.
“Get off my beer,” The nearest had growled.
I nodded sagely, let him have the jug, wiped my mouth with one hand, feeling the beard growing there, and straightened up. “I will,” I said with exaggerated care. Beard, I thought. When had that happened? I couldn't remember the last time I had shaved. How drunk had I been? I'd grown a beard and not noticed. I was looking up and down the corridor, still leaning on the door frame.
“That way,” one of them said, spacing the words as though talking to a drunken fool, which I suppose he was.
I nodded sagely and went.
The Alendi jerked his thumb over his shoulder and carried on walking, his companion eying me in disgust. I nodded thanks and carried on walking. Next set of steps down, I decided.
It wasn't far to the stairs.
I found Sheo and four Alendi at the bottom and froze.
“You're drunk,” he said, seeming to appraise me.
I guess I just hadn't decided what to do. I had a sword, but I didn't reach for it. Doubtless Sapphire had a plan, but I didn't. I hadn't thought it through, so I just stood there at the bottom of the stairs, gaze locked on Sheo as he looked me up and down as I stood there wavering, his four companions unmoving but alert.
“Are you alone?”
I shook my head, then tried to make it look like I was just confused. Not too difficult under the circumstances.
He shook his head, his expression disappointed.
“Come with me,” he said.
So I did.
As the guards moved close around me and reached for my sword I acted, but it was far too late. There were four of them and they were not surprised or unready or drunk. They overpowered me, took my sword and dragged me after him. I struggled and fought and cursed to no avail. Part of me couldn't believe they had taken me so easily and part of me was defeated and not surprised in the least by my abject failure.
“Who's side are you on?”
Sheo looked at me as though trying to assess my sanity but didn't answer.
He stopped before a door, one of the four unlocked it and they threw me in.
“Stay here,” Sheo told me, as though I had a choice.
Doubtless Sapphire would have sprung into action at once, effortlessly killed all five and moved on rapidly to find our target, picked the lock that held him captive, clothed him in barbarian gear and escorted him promptly from captivity with the minimum of fuss. I wondered why I had not? Why had surprise shocked me into inaction? How drunk was I exactly?
I stood there staring at the door as it closed and locked, knowing that part of my inaction was the result of not knowing if Sheo were ally or enemy. I still didn't know. The door had a small grill and I pressed my face against it shouted, “Sheo, he has the last King's amulet!”
His voice drifted back down the corridor, mildly irritated. “Shut up, Sumto.”
So, I thought to myself, my face pressed against the grill, now what?