Bounder Ch. 04byStultus©
************************* CHAPTER FOUR
With the gathering of hardboys growing just down the street from us, we really had very little time left to linger but I first need to get the items that I'd asked Mumford to collect for me from the house.
"Mumford, I see you brought the package I asked for?" He nodded and handed me a small but heavy parcel wrapped in twine from inside of his large cloth covered market basket. Mumford always handled my daily shopping needs for our cook and could be regularly seen in the local markets nearly every day with his usual wicker basket. This time instead of a roast or a string of sausages he was delivering the second of my matching brace of pistols for me and I carefully made sure that it was still loaded. He'd also brought a change of clothes for me, some simpler and more common garments that I could wear anywhere without attracting particular attention. Under my new plain brown jacket I wore the custom made leather and silk holster harness that Mumford had also delivered from my home wardrobe, along with a small silk pouch of spare shot and premeasured paper tubes of powder, ready for swift reloading. With the coat buttoned, the bulge of small pistols in my underarms wasn't noticeable, especially since the current jacket and coat trend was for a heavily quilted and padded garment that considerably bulked up the normal appearance of the male chest. It was unbearably hot in summer, but they did conceal my weapons superbly.
Now that my custom pair of undersized but adequately powered wheellock pistols were reunited, I paused for just a moment to inspect them both once more before tucking them carefully into my holsters. They had cost me a fortune, even by nobleman standards, but the superior workmanship was worth every gold solida that I'd paid. The ivory inlaid wood stock and the silver filigree of the metalwork identified the pistols as a proper weapon of a high nobleman, but they were each small enough to be concealed under a gentleman's waistcoat or jacket, such as now.
As ever, my silver handled walking stick remained in my hand and it held secreted within a much more traditional gentleman's weapon, a slender but sharp sword cane of good watered steel. It was an antique, and an unintentional bonus from an early burglary effort from the estate of a very high nobleman. I'd never trust it against a duel with a great sword or even a heavy claymore, but in such instances I could strike much faster than these sorts of weapon wielding enemies, piercing their hearts before the downward heavy stoke of a greater weapon could even begin. My foes would have short stabbing swords today, a respectable means of arms, but still like a snake I should be able to strike faster and with more deliberation, given a fighting chance. Still, while I had adequate training with a blade when I was younger, I am not a skilled duelist and I try to avoid real sword fights if at all possible. Too many uncertainties... no matter how good you might think you are, there is always someone better.
This early afternoon, I was less than inclined to desire anything resembling a fair fight with the growing collection of leather-bound roughs downstairs. Mumford was too old for such athletics and Maitlan was far too inexperienced to fight against hardened professionals, or really even with most talented amateurs. He was a promising young thief, but fancied himself as a lover and not a fighter, and spent his spare time trysting with whores rather than much time training with the sword-master of the local gym I'd purchased membership for him at. If he didn't get off of his ass and start making an occasional appearance there, I was going to deduct that not insignificant cost from his next pay purse.
As ever, Koch had his long sword at his side, longer and thinner of blade than the usual long sword, but Koch was no sluggard with this weapon in hand and usually would also bring to bear in a fight a long stabbing dagger as well, to wield them together in a complicated dance of steel with effectiveness. He had some skill with this complicated dual-blade technique and he regularly visited an elite sword-master of this school to improve his skills. With both blades he could even hold off a force that might outnumber us, assuming we could avoid being surrounded and overpowered by sheer weight of numbers. If we didn't get out of here fast, he might just have to!
I risked another long look out of the window towards the ale shop and noticed that the gathering of fighting men appeared to be complete and that they were starting to head towards our direction.
"We've been followed here!' I sharply barked, "Make for the Red Standard in the west end, tonight after dark. Stick to dark alleys and side streets and be late if you have to be, to ensure that you're not followed... I'll wait there as long as necessary. Mumford, you and Maitlan take the back stairs first and run rather than try and fight. Koch and I will take up the rear and deal with any other swords sent to cut us off there, now get going!"
Mumford didn't need the reminder to get his ass moving but Maitlan could be a little dense at times. Traveling together, they looked much like father and son and the two of them wouldn't attract much attention, even if the Blackguard had their descriptions or names, or so I hoped. Mumford was also an expert at the creative uses of both stealth and disguise and given just a few minutes of preparation, the pair of them could merge unnoticed into any crowd.
Koch and I followed them right down the stairs and gave the escaping couple a good thirty seconds to get a good head start on us until I saw them disappear safely enough into a side alley a full block away without any immediate sounds of alarm or obvious direct pursuit. When my bodyguard and I attempted to repeat this same feat we met with less fortune. We'd hardly left the rear steps of the whorehouse when from the roof above us I then immediately heard a loud whistle, and with a quick glance upwards I could just make out the long greasy head of one of local street urchins. One of the resident whoresons that had just delivered one of my messages for me! He was the one who had betrayed us!
With a glance before his head disappeared from view, I was able to recognize his features and put them to memory so that I could report this betrayal to the guild master. The thieves' guild could deal with the traitor later, now I needed to make my own escape before the Blackguards soldiers and hired sword mercenaries all came charging after us.
Alarmed to our location, we were pressed for time as our stalkers began closing in on us, undoubtedly from different directions. My bodyguard and I trusted to speed rather than guile to make our escape down the numerous winding alleyways of the warrens, but with a slight measure of ill fortune we could not evade one group of four leather clad assailants that had nearly cut our retreat route off and followed within sight of us for the next five minutes until further misfortune placed our feet down a narrow dark alleyway with no apparent exit. Covered with trash and filth, I couldn't immediately see any other way out, save the way that we had come, and before I we could reverse our way out of this dead end, we were cornered by the four pursuing swordsmen.
One of the soldiers, obviously current or former military to my experienced eyes brought forth a blunderbuss and leveled the fearsome weapon towards us, but as his firearm was matchlit it could not be prepared for firing with swiftness, unlike mine. I had the moment's necessary to draw my brace of wheellock pistols and discharge them each deliberately in turn, taking down the would-be gunman and also the man next to him in front. The mercenaries both fell with large flowing chest wounds, perhaps even instantly fatal, and this at one stroke evened out our fighting odds.
The two remaining swordsmen drew their broadswords and charged us but Koch drew his own brace of sharpened steel blades and stepped forward to meet their charge. Koch is not a man of great intellect or profound thoughts, but he's brave enough to be a knight! I considered holding back to reload my pistols, but I feared that I could not then spare the thirty seconds each necessary to do so, and instead holstered them and drew my sword cane and came to Koch's immediate assistance. His foes were indeed veterans, and exceptionally trained and from the start they had my stout guardian quite upon the retreat. Individually they were about a match, but as a pair they would soon overpower my lone defender if I didn't quickly act.
A quick stinging thrust of my slender blade helped to even the odds, and my strike wounded the mercenary on our right in his side. The wound was neither deep nor stuck into a vital region, but it would be lethal enough soon. I suppose it bears mention that I keep poison inside of my sword cane scabbard to coat the blade. Technically, this is a profoundly dishonorable act that also bears the imperial death penalty, if discovered, but I prefer my enemies to die as quickly as possible, to avoid the risk of them taking me along with them into death! The poison was an expensive one, odorless and colorless that would penetrate into the bloodstream of the victim quickly and not leave any distinct discoloration or by-traces in the wounded flesh. This precaution precluded the use of other more virulent and vile (and more instantly lethal) poisons that did taint the flesh, and thus might cause some embarrassing questions, if used. This poison was more subtle and safer to use, and would bring near certain death within a minute or two unless the victim had the constitution of an ox, and it also quickly caused a considerable amount of burning pain to debilitate its victim.
The poison burned through his blood enough for him to drop his guard quite nearly at once, so that Koch's deliberate parry high with his main blade and a quick sudden stabbing thrust with the long dagger into the stomach of the attacker brought him down to his knees, where a second deliberate thrust of my own slender blade quite took him full in the throat and finished him by normal methods.
Now facing just one assailant, Koch was much more comfortable with these odds and his opponent now finding himself alone and now outnumbered, began to lose his nerve and wits, soon making an overextended attack that my stolid defender could easily parry away hard to the side and downwards with his dagger, leaving his sword free for a final deep mortal thrust into the now unprotected chest of his foe.
While I could not yet hear any sounds of incoming close pursuit, the discharge of the two pistols had been loud and would be unmistakable to the rest of the men hunting us, but I hoped that the warren of alleyways would confuse the exact location of the gunshot, and not directly lead the remainder of the attacking force to us, or at least not right away.
I let Koch cut their coin purses quickly and make a hasty examination for other portable loot but there was little to be had other than their arms and leather armor, which although valuable, were much too bulky to take with us now. Their coins were not particularly plentiful, suggesting that these were not newly hired mercenaries recently assembled to deal with me, but probably Blackguard soldiers out of uniform. The matchlock was of no particular quality, just common military grade stock, but rather than leave it behind for others to use I grasped the pistol by the barrel and beat it hard enough against the cobblestone paved alleyway so that it quickly shattered into pieces and was made quite unable to be fired.
In haste, I next rolled up the sleeves of the front pair of the fallen soldiers and discovered to my entire dissatisfaction that my fears had been quite realized and that most, if not all of the soldiers sent to capture me were in fact current or former members of the Blackguards. Each man's arm bore the traditional black diamond shield shaped emblem of their order tattooed on their left biceps, their traditional shield arm.
This was really of no particular surprise to me, and rather than ponder the problem further here in this crap strewn alleyway it was entirely to our benefit to get our asses onward, and lost into hiding. Immediately, if not sooner.
Koch didn't need any further reminder, and my pistols could wait to be reloaded later. I thought I could hear nearby sounds of running boots in the distance, heavy good quality ones at that, but I didn't see any further Blackguard soldiers and after about another half hour of winding our way through dismal alleyways, I felt secure enough to send Koch on ahead alone, to complete the rest of the trip by himself, so that we would attract less attention.
I ran a few false trails, even trying for awhile to make myself visible again on the main street near my home, to distract and misdirect my pursuit as far away as possible from my actual intended destination. It also helped that before my wild wanderings across the city, I first stopped by the Riverside Vigiles station and borrowed young Flerrie la'Clerkes, junior patrolwoman, once more from her other duties. I let the lass act once more as my tail shadow to again guard my back for the remainder of the afternoon. With her help, we spied out everyone tailing me, and with only minor effort we left several good false trails to everywhere and yet nowhere.
The Blackguards had spread coins across the city like the snows of winter and it seemed that nearly every peddler, street vendor and beggar in the city seemed to take sudden notice of me. It was considered bad business for members of the thieves' guild to take money to rat on one of their own, but I had the distinct feeling that my paid membership in good standing wasn't quite buying me the loyalty I should have expected. At a guess, I'd stay that about half of the street thief's I recognized were taking an extremely unusual interest in me. I wondered what the current price on the street was for news of where to find me? Obviously, it was more than enough that any number of old business acquaintances would cash me in, given half an opportunity, guild rules be damned. You can never fully trust thieves... I should know!
Flerrie kept her rear watch upon me until my trail had been muddied enough that we then dared to head onwards, north and west across town to the Red Standard and we made it there just before dusk. En route, we risked having her leave a message with her watch captain to forward onwards to Sir Adrian, requesting that we might need a little local vigiles support from the rank and file, or at least their active indifference. Safely now at the ale house, I gave the kid a few minutes to get herself a quick hot meal from the street corner food stand across the street and she then set up a mostly hidden watch outside there, with a good view cover the approaches to the main doorway of the ale house.
Everything appearing safe and secure this time for a nice quiet meeting where no one with an ounce of sense would bother us. The Red Standard was the main vigiles drinking house for the patrollers of the west side of the city, where at least a couple of dozen off-duty patrol and watchmen could be found every evening. No one causes trouble in a cop bar! At least they don't if they want to keep all of their teeth and avoid a bunch of broken bones or worse, a year's punishment on a road crew!
I didn't think anyone could ever associate me with the Red Standard tavern, which was located just inside the unsavory boundaries of the very unfashionable west end of the city, uncomfortably near the docks. The ale house catered to off-duty vigiles, making it the safest place to drink (or hide) in nearly the entire city. I'd been in here once or twice before but hadn't been made to feel particularly welcome then. Tonight I was hoping for somewhat more tolerance, or at least benign indifference. The surrounding neighborhood was a dump and the tavern itself looked like something of an unsightly wreck itself, but that just meant that the rent was cheap and the drinks cheaper. Most vigiles don't have the coins to drink at anyplace decent, let alone anything up market, so the bargain basement furnishing and ale suited them just fine.
Without Sir Adrian looking benevolently down upon me from on high, I wouldn't have set foot into the place again even on a bet. I just hoped that the word had gone out for the rank and file to continue to be 'helpful' and that the Blackguards hadn't tossed too many backhanders the vigiles way. The way they loathed each other, I was pretty sure that they hadn't, and I was gambling my neck upon this assumption. The men and women of the guards liked their coins as much as the rest of us and for the most part had a decent enough sort of understanding with the criminal underworld they protected the rest of the city from. The thieves' tried not to create obvious trouble for the watch, or assault them with weapons, and in turn most patrollers didn't go out of their way to make trouble with them either. A mutual attitude of live-and-let-live, tempered with some reciprocated respect.
A message drop for the thieves' guild was quite nearby too, close enough so that while Flerrie ate her hasty meal, I had time to leave a quick message there informing them that a certain whore's by-blow had squealed, and thusly needed carving like a pig. They'd take care of the necessary unpleasantnesses after that, without any help or involvement by me. Squealing was very bad for business in general, even if at least half of the guild would probably take Blackguards silver and gold quickly enough, if the opportunity for profit arose. I might do business with these men and women but I'd never confuse them for friends.
If the bastard kid was real smart, he'd have already buggered off to the Blackguard barracks at the Ormscraig. Maybe they'd promised the kid a future job, or profitable night work as one of their buttboys... I didn't care. Sooner or later the fucker would leave the safety of the walls and suffer some sort of very unfortunate accident, unless he just disappeared into the swamp instead.
Only the lazy or amateur killers dump their victims into the river. That more than anything had been Rochelle's killer's biggest mistake. The great Orms River was big and wide, but at Ormsford, as its name suggests, the river becomes rather shallow and rocky. Anything tossed into the river for several leagues on either side of the bridge is highly likely to just get stuck on a rock or sandbar, or cling to the marshy riverbanks on either side. Ormsford is the furthest upriver that navigation on the river is even possible, let alone practical, and not the best place to be dumping ones garbage!
Anything you want to stay lost forever goes into the swamp. No one with an ounce of sense ever goes there... it's too insanely dangerous, and not just from giant lizards and deranged cannibalistic half-men/half reptiles that are rumored to live there too. There are lots of rumors of a lost temple to some deranged frog god in the heart of this vast swamp, with no shortage of abominable things to guard the ruins and its fabled treasure. Every year like clockwork, some moron adventurer or a group of them will go into the swamp during the early autumn dry season to go questing for it. They never return, so I guess they're all lizard food. In any case, dead bodies that you don't want to ever be discovered disappear very, very quickly when deposited just inside the edges of the swamp... and stay disappeared.
I left my warning message at the drop place for the guild and arrived at the Red Standard early, still just before the city gate horns announcing sunset had blown. The tapster, a sturdy aged veteran who had the bearing of a former senior vigiles sergeant didn't seem to be too surprised to see me and I pretended not to notice when he casually whispered some instructions to a young guardsman who then promptly skedaddled out the door, probably to deliver a message to Sir Adrian. Meah... this was not entirely unexpected.