Bounder Ch. 07byStultus©
********************** CHAPTER SEVEN
At most roadsides there can be found a shrine to Tywusa, Goddess of Travel, Roads, Fate, the future and (indirectly) Luck. Gamblers tend to view her in a masculine aspect, Tywern, Lord of the Dice, but in either identity she, he or it has never paid much attention to me. I try to make my own luck and never depend upon it, which is probably why mine has been rather horrid as a whole for the last year or so. I've never stolen anything from any of her temples or one of her high priests (that I'm aware of) but her beady eyes have been squinting at me lately with apparent disfavor!
At these major roadside shrines, travelers tend to leave small gifts, usually food or flowers, or a small coin along with a very fervent and devout prayer. I try rather hard not to believe in the gods, largely so that they'll choose in return not to believe in me, and more or less leave me entirely alone. It doesn't seem to work that way however. I appear to amuse them for some reason.
That early afternoon as I was making my final preparations for our night of community improvement via the aid of a jolly good fire, I had the sudden notion that I ought to be offering my own prayers to the nearby shrine, located right at the south end of the Ormsbridge. Refusing to bullied or intimidated, I acted with my usual contrariness and willfully instead pilfered a ripe apple that had been placed into the offertory bowl. Now it was accepted for tramps of the roads without a coin in their purse to freely take such divinely blessed gifts, but my act was pure puerile rebellion, and punished accordingly.
From the start, nothing seemed to go right, beginning with the problem that I soon received a report that Mumford's wagon loaded with the small pony kegs of oil suffered the improbable misfortune of breaking a wheel and then the rear axle, right in the center of the marketplace. This caused all of the barrels to roll off and shatter onto the stone, spilling the fuel into the roadway and several vendor stalls. If that was not enough of a disaster, nearly at once there was the further unlikely calamity of a suddenly dropped lantern (lit during the middle of the afternoon for no apparent reason or cause) which landed upon the stream of flowing oil, creating an instant conflagration in the marketplace that shut down the market entirely and blocked city traffic for hours! Mumford (and his borrowed cart horse sans the broken burning wagon) escaped unharmed, but he sent a messenger reporting that he was trying to get to another market before they all closed for the evening but more bad luck had ensued. Once the market road was cleared he had obtained a second wagon but at the worst possible time and place it also suffered a broken wheel. Ruefully, he reported that his successful return (and without oil) before the city gates closed for the night was exceedingly unlikely.
This was going to be a problem. Still, I decided that even without our planned pagan bonfire sacrifice, the attack was still on for midnight! I was furious and once again filled with rancor, at both the Weir's and the Fates. The Goddess must have been laughing herself silly.
Koch, Maitlan and I arrived as planned near the Weirhold Inn an hour or so before midnight, and everything there seemed peaceful. The inn was dark except for a hint of a fire in the taproom downstairs, which could be seen gleaming softly through the thin horn windows and no other lights upstairs were visible. I hoped this meant that the entire household was asleep. Thus assured that we were unlikely to be observed, I immediately decided to change up the plan entirely. Warned of their difficulties, it seemed likely that both Mumford and Flerrie wouldn't be arriving with the wagon or any oil, and perhaps not even arriving at all! There were lots of ways of getting in and out of the city after dark, once the gates were secured for the night, but most of them were for extreme measures only and the guild took a dim view on their use for unessential and non-critical situations, such as an overwhelming need for self-preservation. I didn't think Flerrie's writ-card, or anything short of a command by Sir Adrian himself, could get the gates of the city opened again after dark.
The lack of fuel for the planned bonfire was annoying me, and I let it unsettle my nerves. The smart scoundrel uses events to his own advantage and doesn't try to tilt at windmills and force events to suit his plans instead. It's stupid in both card play and real life! But I had wanted that fuel, and decided it was worth the risk of splitting up my smaller group to try and find some, here and now and at the last possible minute.
I told Koch to check out some of the barns and storage sheds within the town proper and then I bade Maitlan check out the other storage barn here, further away from the stables, a bit closer to the hillside copse of trees. Heck, if we couldn't find any lamp or lubricating oil anywhere, I was willing just stuff bales of straw all the way around the building and torch the inn that way. Not ideal, but it sounded reasonably practical. Besides, I was getting pissed!
For my own search location, I chose the stables, which was probably a tactical mistake. I knew that the third younger brother slept there and while I was decent at sneaking about quietly, young Maitlan was much better at it. He was also much better at getting in and out without getting distracted during the job. That was a skill that not even the Thief-Master Mumford could successfully ever teach me! I realized my mistake just too late to catch Maitlan before he had scampered off, and I didn't want to shout out loud enough to call him back. So, I marched into folly.
Once inside the stables, I had a little light from a lit lantern that had been left turned down low but it gave me a fair to good view of everything that I needed to see. My night vision has always been excellent, and the first thing that I noticed was the black hack, which indeed was identical to the one that had nearly run me over a few short nights ago. Then compelled to further examine this prize, I was next delighted to discover a long thread of black silk attached to the left front carriage lamp. This was from where the brass lantern had brushed against my back as I had pressed myself in the shallow doorway to escape being driven over on the sidewalk. No doubt, this was a thread from my black silk opera cape!
Now any doubts I might have had about the legitimacy of my targets was gone. One or both of the brothers had murdered Rochelle and Danelle, and then attempted to kill me as well! Their father had used his business and personal connections with the Blackguards to quiet up the incidents as much as possible and deter any meaningful investigation. Once a black-cape, always a black-cape... they protect their own.
Delighted by this find, I was just then starting my search for some oil when I heard the sounds of a large wagon rolling up in front of the stables.
"Ho, Mumford! You've made it!" I called out in surprise, in something of accidentally overloud voice. I'd only intended my voice to carry just outside but not much further but probably due to nerves it bellowed rather overly loud and I scampered out of the stables to meet my manservant and the guardswoman. I supposed that he'd been able to locate some fuel after all and I was about to remark on this when I noted one distinct problem. The wagon driver was not Mumford neither was it Flerrie there either!
Seated upon the front wagon seat of a good sized wagon drawn by a pair of coal black horses was an unfamiliar young woman, but in an instant my memory flashed a warning that I had seen her shadowy figure before, and that same black wide brimmed hat and cloak. She had been the driver of the hack that had killed Danelle and the one who had nearly run me over that night as well!
I wanted to laugh, but it wasn't convenient. The woman, undoubtedly Edwina, the sister of the Weir brothers, reached quickly for a musket that was by her side but fortunately the match cord was unlit and would take a moment or two to ignite, even if she had a tinderbox handy.
My next immediate thought was to skedaddle, preferably towards the inn and closer to Koch, who ought to be somewhere nearby and able to provide me support. I could have shot her of course, but that would have woken up everyone at the inn, and perhaps half of the town as well. Take a step to flee; I could now see in the gloom three men in dark leathers approaching from the rear door of the inn, with crossbows (illegal and proscribed) and swords by their side. They were armed and dressed for a night of mayhem, probably banditry, but ready and able to deal with other unexpected inconveniences, like me.
After a moment of indecision on my part, they were now close enough to see me in the stable doorway and I decided that the wiser option would be to run like hell in the other direction, maybe towards the barn instead. Maitlan wasn't much of a fighter, but he'd help to even the odds out a bit until Koch could arrive.
There was only one significant flaw with this otherwise entirely acceptable solution to my current dilemma... the fact that my ill-advised shout outside had awaken the simple youngest son who had been napping in the rear corner of the stables. As I turned to flee I saw him now right behind me, and for a moment I suddenly realized that the grimy dark brown oilskin coat that the lad was wearing was undoubtedly Rochelle's, the one that her fiancée Svein had loaned her on that fateful rainy day! I didn't have more than a moment to marvel upon this discover before his burly fist, which appeared to be the size of an entire ham, crashed into the side of my head and my world turned to darkness.
I suppose I should have been grateful that I'd even been allowed the opportunity to ever again awaken and that my throat hadn't just been cut right there on the spot. If the roles had been reversed, and I had caught a skulking malevolent prowler in my stables, it might have been entirely likely that I'd have chosen that expediency instead and gone on with my business. Or not... the more I thought about it, the more I was certain that I wouldn't. In truth I'd have wanted to question the captured intruder too, to delve into their mind thoroughly before making any distinct plans for the later disposition of my captive.
At heart, I'm a rogue and a thief, and not a killer. With my gift, I could have easily determined why the intruder had come in the first place, and just what interest (if any) the fellow had in me or my operations. This was just simple prudence, and at least one of the Weir clan appeared to share my attitude towards cautious but thorough self-preservation.
Even before I could quite manage to get my eyes open again and marginally focused, I could plainly hear that the current plan of keeping me alive just long enough to answer a few sharply focused questions was very much a minority opinion. Edwina, the daughter appeared to be giving most of the orders, and mercifully she was my primary advocate. Certainly she was all in favor of killing me in some undoubtedly nasty manner... but later, after a little pleasant torture first.
Her father and brothers were rather instead all for her just cutting my damn throat now, and being done with it. They were 'late already', her father kept reminding everyone, and they needed to get the wagon out on the road now, with as little further delay as possible. Apparently, they had made plans for family business trip at midnight themselves, for a short journey up north a couple of hours to collect a cargo of strong spirits... and perhaps a few purses along the way there and back.
The business of smuggling strong distilled drink was indeed a profitable one, but it also was high risk and tended to have high labor costs with numerous middle-men between the rural distiller and the thirsty urban customer. Ale and wine were legal, and reasonably cheap and plentiful, but keener sorts of customers will always desire that which is scarcer and most forbidden to them. A guilty pleasure that was openly illicit, but nearly everyone winked at. It was a mostly a rural sort of criminal enterprise too, a good way for farmers to gain value for otherwise subsistence crops.
The Weirs bought the spirits right from the distiller and then distributed the liquid gold via the Blackguards, who undoubtedly resold the cargo to wholesalers for the inn and tavern trade. The local thieves' guild back in Ormsford probably had their fingers in some of the later distribution stages too, perhaps even working directly with the black-cloaks to dispense the liquor to dozens or even hundreds of hostelries and watering holes in every corner of the city.
It was not technically against imperial law to distill strong liquor, at least not in amounts that were deemed to be strictly 'for personal use', it was very much a criminal offense to buy or sell it as legally it was untaxed. Legal or not, it was still available for the asking nearly everywhere. Every inn, tavern and ale house I knew of kept some quietly under the counter, and even the elite club members of The Crown had openly enjoyed their after dinner brandies and fruit liqueurs without concern or regard for the law. For the most part, our political and social betters were all above such things anyway and essentially untouchable in any case.
The proscription was of long standing religious grounds and this canon law was enforced by the Scarlet Guard and the local ward beadles of the church, but generally with less than full zeal and religious fervor. The bulk of the Scarlet Guard was all in Mirabelle, as their primary duty was the protection of the Assembly of Archbishops. The local church ward beadles, here and everywhere else for that matter, tended to be even more underpaid than the local vigiles. Beadles were all notorious for their willingness (and eagerness) to take a backhander, bribery being their primary means of financial support. As for the vigiles themselves, they normally took little if any interest in the enforcement of this rather unpopular law, usually having far more important uses for their rather limited and also underpaid manpower. They occasionally charged an innkeeper for possessing and selling hard spirits, or nabbing a distributor that was working independent without giving the thieves' guild (or their guard-captain) their percentage, but mostly this occurred only as an addition to other more significant offenses, solely for the purpose of increasing the potential criminal penalties and fines.
In any case, distributing and smuggling spirits seemed to be the Weir's primary business. They'd obtain the liquor right from its rural source, and then store and distribute it to members of the Blackguards for further reallocation to other wholesalers. Not a bad business, and undoubtedly a fairly profitable one! But also a business that required as little attention from the local vigiles watch station as was possible. The family tended to rather permanently remove anyone that might tend to create legal troubles for them. This gave them another reasonable motive of sorts for killing their escaping rape victim Rochelle, rather than allowing her to serve out an official complaint against them, if they strongly suspected that the outraged women could not be bought or threatened into silence. Danelle was certainly not that type of girl and she had refused to be intimidated and I guessed that her sister Rochelle was cut from the same determined sort of cloth.
In any case, the family was already behind schedule for taking their wagon north to pick up their waiting shipment, and I was very much already an unwelcome and extremely inconvenient distraction!
With my head now somewhat cleared from the great blow that I had been struck, I was able to quickly take a self-inventory and run down a hasty mental list of available options. I was securely tied onto a sturdy chair by strong rope in a corner of the main taproom of the inn, and rather firmly so, by both my hands and feet. I knew a few tricks about how to escape from tied ropes (part of my early education from Mumsford), but this skill worked best if I had been prepared first, to tense my muscles properly before hand, so that when I could then relax afterwards, a great deal of slack in the rope could then be quickly exploited. As I'd been unconscious at the time of my securing, there was no looseness now in the bonds to be discovered, and the knots appeared to be sturdy.
Still it could have been worse. My captors except for the simple lad, who appeared to be watching over me near the fireplace, were all congregated in tense and animated discussion at the far corner of the tap room. They'd intended I supposed to have a quiet and very private family discussion, but in their annoyance their voices were quite loud and easily carried across the room, enough so that if I kept my own voice to a whisper, I was fairly certain that they in turn couldn't hear me. From the volume and heated tone of the argument, the father wasn't the only member of the family with severe anger management issues! The daughter was rather a hellion! No wonder Mumford thought she was a witch just like her grandmother!
The simple lad, whose name appeared to be Edgar, was easily distracted by my quiet whistle and in a moment our eyes locked together, and I began at once to seize control over his will. It was pathetically simple.
Normally I have little difficulty subverting my victims even if they possess their full measure of wit and willpower, but I had never attempted to seize control over a witling. He was a lad of only minimal mental capacity, and this was accomplished rapidly and with only minimal exertion of effort. Usually such a task takes time and considerable effort, and physical contact is sometimes necessary to complete the mental bond between us sufficiently that my will can entirely overpower theirs. The lad's will became mine to control in but moments, completely and utterly without reservation... and with little time now to act. The 'kill him now' faction appeared to have convinced their rather bloodthirsty sister that I wasn't worth the delay... and she could hopefully find someone else to kill (slowly) later while on the road.
What a nice sort of family. The family that slays together, stays together! It wouldn't have surprised me in the least to learn that they cooked and ate their victims as well as robbed them too! Well, now I had at least one member of the clan on my side.
"Come behind me to inspect my bonds, but cut me free with your belt knife!" I hissed, as clearly as I could under clenched teeth so that only he could hear me. "Be slow and make no sudden movements and say nothing."
The lad obeyed, for his mind was completely under my control, both blank and obedient to my commands. His small belt knife was sharp and he quickly had the ropes binding my hands cut away. I had the alert presence to grasp the falling rope with my fingers so that it would not fall to the floor and become visible. Held now by my left hand, my right hand was now free to move, and with a quick cautious shift of my right shoulder, I could now detect that my brace of hidden pistols were still there, secured inside under my dark leather jacket against my skin.
My captors had not thought to search me there or even unbutton my thick jacket to look for other weapons, as small sized concealable wheel-lock pistols were a rare novelty that would be hardly known of, even to a retired Blackguards officer. It was an entirely understandable mistake to make. My hands were now free to act and I could quickly now unfasten my leather jacket to reach and use my weapons at any moment, but I was still outnumbered, and my feet were still tied to the legs of the chair. A problem still, but not an insurmountable one. Now I could kill at least two of them and perhaps mind control another quickly enough to allow a proper escape.