Winter in Hien: Part 1
The ship creaked as it rocked beside the rough quay, the mooring ropes having just been secured. I climbed up the ladder to the quarterdeck, looking for the captain, a hawkish red-headed woman. She wasn’t hard to find, standing firm on one side of the deck.
“You lot ready?” She asked, as I approached.
I nodded. “Idina is bringing Kaja up with her now. We’ll be out of your hair soon.”
The captain stomped her feet a little, irritated. “If I find out who let that child aboard, I’ll string him from the yards by his guts.”
I shrugged. “We’d be happier if she were back in Proteshi. She complicates things.”
Captain Luzel sighed. “You take care of that little one.”
I nodded, before gesturing beyond the docks. “This is it?”
“Hien.” Captain Luzel confirmed.
Hien could hardly be called a city. From what I could see, it was ringed by a high fortified wall, but the space within amounted to perhaps a tenth the size of Proteshi. Beyond the wall, the hills surrounding the city were covered with yurts, perhaps as many as a thousand, maybe more.
I frowned. “It looks barely larger than a small town.”
“That’s the foreign quarter, not a building there but has been built by a foreigner. The city itself is more of a large camp, Oerigathi have a dislike for permanent structures. You see that wall, between the yurts and the buildings?”
“They won’t allow you beyond that wall. Foreigners are not allowed in Oerigath, this far is all they’ll allow. They’re a funny people, don’t believe in staying in one place for too long, so all their houses are those large yurts. Love their horses too, they do. A little too much if you ask me.”
I snorted. “I’ve met one or two Oerigathi over the years. They really love their honour.”
“Oh, Gods yes.” Captain Luzel confirmed. “Whatever you do, don’t insult them. Once ashore, you’ll have no rights if you tangle with them. If an Oerigathi kills you, no one will think twice about it. If you kill one of them, you’ll be hunted down and killed.”
“That’s good to know.” I muttered.
“Roland gave me the name of a man here who’ll take you to see Isidor.”
“I’m not meeting with Isidor here?”
The captain laughed. “No. He’s rarely here in Hien. He’s out in the delta somewhere. No foreign ships are allowed to heave to out in the river, so this is the only place to disembark.”
I sighed. “Roland keeps springing surprises on me, he can’t keep anything simple.”
Captain Luzel slapped my back. “What’s life without a little challenge.”
“Safe.” I replied, sourly.
The captain grunted. “True that, but it’d be boring.”
“Who am I meeting and where?”
“A Kurlaci, Petre Sandruni. Roland didn’t say where he’d be. You might try the Fish Hook inn though, it’s not the only inn in town, but almost everyone ends up there eventually.”
“I’ll be here for another two days. Should you need to leave unexpectedly, get word to me.”
“I’ll do that.” I put out my hand and the captain shook it.
“Good luck.” She bid.
I climbed down from the quarterdeck and met Idina and Kaja by the gangway.
“Let’s go.” I said, taking my pack from Idina.
I led the way down the gangway and stepped on to the quay, as a cold drizzle started to fall. Beyond the rough stonework, the packed dirt streets were already a muddy mess. The weather had gotten colder, and we’d run through a few squalls, while still out at sea. Winter was most certainly on the way. The street beside the quay was quieter than I’d expected. I supposed the Oerigathi only came near the docks when a large trading vessel put in. As we walked to the Fish Hook inn, I saw Torenish, Semarians, one or two fellow Cheutens, a Kurlaci or two, and even someone who may have been Daraberi. Clearly this was a busy trading hub, but it was unusually small.
I found the inn a street back from the docks and was not particularly impressed. It was built from mud bricks and had obviously been plastered recently. The window frames didn’t fit particularly well, and I could see that bits of cloth and straw had been used to try and plug some of the gaps. Someone had painted the door at one point, but it was so faded now that it was hard to tell what the colour had been. Blue maybe, or green.
“Let me do the talking.” I said, quietly. “I’ll get us a room…”
“Two rooms.” Idina interrupted.
“Two rooms.” I amended. “and some food. You keep an eye on Kaja.”
“I can look after myself.” Kaja objected, sharply, glaring up at Idina.
I sighed and pinched the bridge of my nose. “Kaja, you might have known your way around the better parts of Proteshi, but this is a long way from there. Just follow Idina’s lead and everything will be fine.”
“I’m not stupid.” She replied, defiantly. “I know this isn’t like home, but I can still take care of myself.”
I stopped walking and turned around to her. “I know you’re not stupid, but you have no experience of life outside of Proteshi. Idina and I do, so please, just do as we say.”
“Fine.” Kaja snapped, as she marched towards the door.
I glanced at Idina, who just shrugged. As soon as we were done here in Hien, I’d take Kaja straight back to Proteshi, and make sure she stayed there this time. I didn’t have the time, or the inclination, to care for a young woman.
I pushed in the door and stepped down into a dim, warm tap room. The ceiling was low, with lanterns hanging from pegs here and there. A taller man would have to walk carefully. Tables were scattered around the straw strewn floor, no two alike. At the far end of the room, a large fireplace dominated the only stone wall, a merry fire burning brightly. I made my way to the rough counter. A big man sat on a tall stool at the edge of the bar, a pipe in his mouth and a large tankard in front of him. His eyes locked on me as I crossed the room.
“What’ll it be?” The seated man, evidently the innkeeper, asked me as I leaned against the counter.
“Two rooms, if you have them.”
“Some cold chicken, got a goat just about done on the spit, bread, cheese, some root vegetables.”
I nodded. “Three plates, goat, bread, vegetables, cheese. Two ales and a small beer.”
I rolled my eyes a little at the price, but handed over the coins, before returning to the door and gesturing to Idina and Kaja. We followed a tall, brown haired girl, about Kaja’s age, upstairs and she showed us to our rooms. After dropping our packs, we headed back downstairs to one of the tables.
We sat down and a moment later the girl brought over our drinks. I took a sip of my ale and found it plain, not the worst I’d ever drank, but a long way from the best.
“So, what’s the plan?” Idina asked as soon as our food had arrived.
“We wait.” I replied, popping a piece of cheese into my mouth. “Get the lay of the land and then tomorrow, I’ll see about finding our contact. I’m sure I’ll find a street boy to point me in the right direction.”
“And tonight?” Idina pressed.
“We rest. Tomorrow is soon enough to start.”
Idina nodded and relaxed a little.
“Have you thought about what you’re going to do?” I asked her.
The Warlock shrugged. “Not sure yet. I owe you for helping with the Siren, so I’ll stick around until you’re done here. I’ve been thinking about heading east. Kurlac, or maybe I’ll see if Daraber truly is nothing but a huge desert.”
“Not back to Cheute?”
Idina shook her head. “No, I think I’m done there, at least Aavan seems to think so.”
I glanced at Kaja, who despite looking like she was concentrating on her plate, was obviously paying keen attention to our conversation.
“He tell you that directly?” I asked, curious.
“No.” Idina shook her head slightly. “It’s more of a feeling. He doesn’t really communicate directly. I just get an impression of a direction and sooner or later I get to where he wants me to go.”
The door opened suddenly, and several rough looking men walked in, talking loudly. The door banged shut behind them as they made their way to the bar. I eyed them for a moment and relaxed. Dock workers, probably. They weren’t a threat. At least not right now.
“You’re always on guard.” Idina commented. “Do you ever relax.”
I gave her a half smile. “I am relaxed.”
Idina smiled back.
“Can we go practice with your bow again?” Kaja interrupted. “When we’re done eating.”
I shook my head. “We can’t while here. Wait until we’re away from the, city, camp, whatever this place is.”
Kaja sighed. “Throwing knives? We could do that indoors.”
“Gods no.” I replied, emphatically. “You were lucky you didn’t take your hand off on the ship. Knives are definitely not your thing.”
“But I want you to keep teaching me things!” Kaja protested quietly.
“I will.” I assured her. “But right now, I’m working. Look, you’ve the makings of a good archer. All you need is a little more patience, and more practice. Once we get out into the wilds, I’ll start showing you about tracking and the like.”
The girl sighed and resumed eating.
It was hard to keep up with her. Since we’d found her on the ship, she’d been good humoured, argumentative, carefree, confrontational, obnoxious, silent, and demanding. Sometimes all in the space of a few minutes.
I wasn’t sure if her mood swings were a result of the trauma of the last few weeks, or a phase she was going through. I couldn’t remember her being like this on the few times I had eaten with her parents, but it’s possible she’d been on her best behaviour. Maybe it was both, or none. I had no way of knowing, I didn’t have anything to compare it to. I mentally shrugged, hopefully she’d hold together until I got her back to what was left of her home. We lingered over our food, and I drank a few more ales, enjoying the rare chance to relax.
Waking a couple of hours before sunrise, I dressed quietly, leaving my boots by the bed and slipped out the small window. I dropped almost silently to the muddy ground and quickly glanced around in the cold darkness. I didn’t see anyone watching, so I made my way out onto the street, and headed towards the western end of the dock. There were a number of warehouses, closely packed and heavily used, to be found there. I circled around them, watching for any hint of movement. It didn’t take long. I spotted a short, lank haired boy of indeterminate years, dressed in ragged clothes, slipping into one of the warehouses. A local thief no doubt, just what I was looking for.
I leapt up onto the roof of the building and found a small, dirty window left ajar. I slid through and found myself in the rafters of the long, single storey building. Using skills I had spent years honing, I made my way through the wooden rafters, careful to avoid weakened beams, until I again spotted my quarry.
I dropped to the ground behind the boy, just as he whirled around, a short, ugly dagger in his hand. I deflected his slash and then grabbed the offending arm. The boy didn’t hesitate. He released the dagger, grabbed it out of the air with his free hand, and again thrust. He was good, for his age, better than I’d been. I grabbed his other arm and stopped the thrust. He squirmed and then jumped, driving his heels into my chest. I forced myself to suck in air and held the boy tight.
“Stop.” I hissed. “I want information, not your life.”
The boy stopped squirming. I relaxed for a moment, and then he kicked me in the chin as he performed a backflip. My teeth clacked together, and I let him go, rather than risk dislocating his shoulders.
“Gods damn it!” I growled as the boy hit the ground running. “Equola grant me patience!”
I took off after the thief, drawing on my abilities to leap over obstacles rather than dodge around them and kicked the boy’s legs out from under him before he could reach the door. He hit the ground hard and slid up against the wall.
“I don’t know nothin’!” He protested as I sat on him.
“Yeah, yeah.” I replied. “But for a little gold, I’m sure you’ll remember something.”
The boy went still. “Oh yeah? How much?”
“Depends on what you tell me. I’m looking for someone.”
He started to struggle again. “I’m no rat!” He protested.
“It’s nothing like that.” I reassured him. “I have a name; I just want to know where to find him.”
The thief stilled again, listening.
“Five?” I whispered, harshly.
“Find him yourself if you don’t want to pay.”
“Two, and you get to walk away alive.”
“Done. He has a house, two streets back from the docks, near the Fish-hook inn. Can’t miss it, there’s always some flowers in the window.”
I dropped the two coins on the ground beside the boy’s head and got off him. As he reached for the coins, I jumped up and hauled myself back into the rafters. I watched as the boy glanced fearfully around, his dagger back in his hand, and saw him mutter something too soft to catch. He slipped out of the building and then I was alone.
I stayed where I was for a few minutes, then carefully left the building. I checked around, but there was no sign of the boy. Evidently, I’d scared him enough that he hadn’t wanted to wait around to watch me leave. I dropped back down to the street and walked in the general direction of where Petre’s house was. I didn’t want to take a direct route, and to be safe, I doubled back several times. I couldn’t see anyone following me, nor did I have a sense that someone might be, but it paid to be careful.
Drops of cold rain were starting to fall as I moved quietly along the street leading to Petre’s house and I hunched my shoulders. I found the house easily enough but kept walking right past it to the end of the street. I found a narrow alley, barely wider than my shoulders, and ducked into it, glancing back towards the house as I did. The street was blessedly empty. I scaled the wall of the house beside the alley and slipped noiselessly over the roof. I discovered a conveniently unlatched window in Petre’s house and slipped inside. I lowered myself into what appeared to be a short hall. A slight metallic tang caught the back of my nose and I cursed silently. I followed the scent to an open door and found a young, long-haired man, his throat cut, lying in bed. He had not died swiftly or painlessly, judging by the dislocated fingers and toes. Petre, I assumed. I froze, as another thought hit me. Maybe the window had been too convenient.
I heard a creak from the stairs just outside the room and spun around, as a tall, thin man froze on seeing me.
“Well…” He started.
I didn’t give him time to finish. I leapt at him, driving my shoulder into his stomach, winding him. I drove him into the wall and as he folded, I rammed my knee into his descending jaw. As he slumped to the ground, I sprinted to the window I’d come in through and dove straight through it, dropping down into the house’s small back yard. I burst through a thin wooden gate that led out to a narrow alley and fled towards the docks.
Once I was certain I wasn’t being followed, I stopped running and slipped between the many warehouses. I looked around and then leant back against a wall, breathing heavily. I offered a quick prayer to Ackus, God of Battle and Luck. Whoever that assassin had been, and he had most certainly been an assassin, he’d been good. I’d not known he was in the house until he was just outside the door. I needed to figure out what to do next. Almost certainly the assassin would be trying to track me. The first place he’d look would be the inns, and there weren’t that many to choose from. After that he’d check the recently arrived ships. I would need to warn captain Luzel and I’d need to hide Kaja somewhere. I felt no worry over Idina, she was more than capable of looking after herself. Priorities, it was always about priorities.
I pushed off the wall and started walking. I should have killed that assassin, but in the heat of the moment, escape had seemed to be the wiser choice. Maybe I’d be able to persuade Kaja to stay on the Luzel’s ship. I snorted at the thought. More likely she’d throw a fit at being left behind. I was going to have to do something about that girl.
I took as circuitous route as I could on my way back to the inn, making sure I wasn’t being followed. I slipped back in my window and unpacked my bow. I strung it and placed it on the bed while I hung a quiver of arrows from my hip. My daggers were all still in place, but I took out my wristband of needles and strapped it on. I rooted around in my pack for the small bottle of sleep toxin I kept to refresh my needles, but couldn’t find it. I cursed. I only had a small number of needles coated with the sleep toxin. I was sure I’d repacked it the yesterday morning, a few hours before we’d arrived in Hien. Maybe it had fallen out before we’d left the ship.
I shook my head and closed my pack again. I slung it over my shoulders and picked up my bow. Slipping out of my room door, I padded noiselessly to Idina’s door. I tapped on the door with a fingertip then slowly opened the door. I heard a noise, inside, and the door was suddenly pulled open. I felt a blade slide along my neck and took it with good grace.
“It’s me.” I said simply. “We need to leave. Now.”
Idina’s sword left my neck and she disappeared back into the room. I followed her in and closed the door behind us. There was a slight spark of light, and then Idina lit the small candle. Kaja was still in bed, rubbing her eyes.
“What’s happening?” She asked, anxious.
I held a finger to my lips.
Idina turned to her. “Get dressed.”
“What?” Kaja protested. “Why?”
“That’s a good question.” Idina muttered as she started drawing on her clothes.
“Isidor’s man is dead. An assassin found him before I did. He was still there when I arrived.”
“Did you kill him?” Idina asked, as she continued to get dressed.
I shook my head. “I probably should have. I stunned him and got out of there as fast as I could.”
“Did you know him?” Idina asked.
I shook my head again. “Don’t think I’ve ever seen him before.”
“So, he’s going to be looking for you now.” The Warlock commented as she sat down to pull on her boots.
“Yeah. There’s less than a dozen inns in town, it won’t take him long.”
Kaja had finally started moving out of the bed and realised that she was wearing little more than a thin shift. She blushed hard as she looked at me.
“Move faster, girl.” Idina admonished.
“But…” Kaja protested looking at me.
I pointedly turned around, giving her some privacy.
“What’s your plan?”
“Back to the ship.” I answered. “Kaja should be safe enough there and I can see if captain Luzel knows of any other contacts.”
“But!” Kaja protested.
“You’ll go where you’re told!” I informed her, turning around to point at her.
The girl spun around, showing her back to me, her hands trying to preserve her modesty.
“For the Gods’ sake Kaja.” Idina growled. “Get your bloody clothes on. Have you not been listening?”
I turned my back on the girl again.
“What if the good captain doesn’t have any other names for you?” Idina asked.
I shrugged. “Then I’ve no way to find Isidor. If I can’t find Isidor, I can’t do as Roland asked. I’ll have to go back to Proteshi I suppose, see if Roland has any other contacts to get me to him.”
“You don’t seem too upset.”
I shrugged again. “I’ve no personal stake in this, it was a favour to Roland, nothing more. It wouldn’t be my fault if Isidor died because I couldn’t get to him on time.”
We lapsed into silence for a while, as Kaja shuffled around behind me, getting dressed. I heard her sit on the bed and turned again to see her pulling on her boots.
“Okay.” I announced. “I’ll go first. Kaja, stay between us. If I tell you to hide, find the darkest patch of shadows you can and stay there until I come fetch you. Understand?”
Kaja nodded, her features drawn with worry.
“Good. Tie up your hair, it’ll get in your way.”
I took off my quiver and tossed her my bow, before handing over the arrows.
“Once we’re out of the inn, keep an arrow on the string. Just like we practiced.”
The girl nodded again.
“Alright.” I said, taking a breath.
I led Idina and Kaja back into my room and opened the window. I glanced out into the wet night and found the way clear. I bent down and reached under my bed, pulling out a length of rope I’d left there for just such an occasion. I held the rope and braced myself.
“You first.” I said to Idina.
The Warlock climbed through the window and slid down the rope without a problem. I gestured to Kaja and she followed Idina. Once they were down, I pulled back up the rope, and coiled it over my shoulder. Then I climbed through the window and dropped to the ground.
“Let’s go.” I whispered.
It was a short walk directly from the inn, but I took a circuitous route, so we ended up coming to the docks from the opposite side. As I stepped onto the wharf, the smell of burning caught my attention. I looked to captain Luzel’s ship and saw smoke starting to drift from her hold. A sudden flare of light forced me to look away as something inside the ship took flame.
“Damn it!” I swore. “They went for the ship first, I hope captain Luzel got off.”
“We can’t stay here.” Idina advised.
I nodded. “You’re right.”
Flames were clearly visible on the ship now and the crews of other nearby ships had started shouting warnings, as they raced to release their ships and try to escape the worsening fire.
“Where to now?” The Warlock asked, softly.
“We’ll head towards the warehouses for a while, find one to hole up in. Once it’s proper light out, I’ll try to get us passage out of here. Although with this fire now, everything will be up in the air.”
“Anywhere is better than here.” Idina muttered.
I nodded. “This way.”
I was just turning around when something like a small stone hit the side of my neck. My hand flashed up, but I found nothing there as I turned to look in the direction it had come from. Several men had just turned onto the wharf from one of the other streets. Local toughs, from the look of them. I glanced behind us and spied a few more.
“Too late.” I muttered.
Idina gripped the hilt of her sword.
“Not yet.” I cautioned her.
We ducked into an alley, one that led between the back yards of some of the houses and shops.
“Keep following this alley until you get to the end.” I said. “Find somewhere to hide. I’ll find you both after.”