In which the pickled pair find themselves in a pickle
Some hours earlier, when a seriously hung-over Leon came round, he was relieved to find himself in darkness. The smell left much to be desired though. He wondered vaguely where he was. The effort only added to the splitting headache so he gave up. Then he wondered why he felt so uncomfortable - and found he couldn't move.
Following the train of thought, he realized his wrists were tied behind him - tied to his ankles, furthermore. The splitting headache grew worse. It seemed to have spawned and its offspring had transferred themselves to his gut, making him feel seriously unwell. His stomach made its protest in a very physical manner.
After he'd thrown up, he felt much better, even if the feeling was only temporary. He shuffled away from yesterday's remains and laid still awhile, listening to the silence that was not quite silence. The scuttering noises had to be rats - not that that bothered him overmuch - and the stertorous breathing came from...? Oh yes, Ewan, probably.
Somewhere in the distance, he heard a voice calling the hour and proclaiming, erroneously, that all was well. Then other voices spoke, much nearer and louder. They seemed to come from overhead somewhere.
"I still fink I shoulda slit ver froats," one rasped harshly.
"Later," replied a rather more cultured voice. "For now, I want them alive. Dead stock wouldn't make a very good lure. You should know that. Once I've got Caspar in my power, you can do what you like with those two. Why not try out that idea with the red-hot poker? They say it doesn't leave any trace on the outside. If true, it might be useful sometime."
"Right y'are boss. Vat'll be int'restin'. Make up fer ver lack o' gelt dey 'ad on 'em. Whadda we do nah, boss?"
"We wait, Glitch, we wait. I think Caspar and his wizardly friend will come looking for them. Caspar, I want alive - if only temporarily." Came an evil laugh from the speaker. "I leave the other one to you."
"Fanks, boss. Er - yer don't fink we could use 'im? I mean, yer farver wanted 'im ta work for 'im "
"Yes, and look where it got him - and Peri." The voice sounded very bitter. "No. Take him out, but don't take any chances."
The two moved away after that, leaving Leon's mind in a peculiarly painful whirl.
Kai was hard put to keep a straight face as Désirée appeared. She all but skidded to a halt in the dust and set off again at a slow and dignified pace along Market street towards him, casually glancing at the wares of other itinerant vendors.
For a moment, he thought she was going to walk straight past him, then as she was passing, she clapped he hands together and declared, "Pegs! I almost forgot! I need some new pegs."
She surged towards him, beaming.
"Good woman, I wish to buy your pegs - all of them," she announced in stentorian tones and with a sweeping gesture towards the basket.
As an actress, she must have dominated any stage, though Kai was reluctant to speculate about the quality of her performance. He stood up. Under cover of the transaction, Désirée told him to go back along the street and turn left. She would continue on her way then back-track through the alleys to meet him.
"Don't walk too fast though, me dear," she concluded, taking the pegs. "I almos' bust a gusset to get here quick, an' I'm about jiggered now!"
Kai did as he was told. He would hardly have dared do otherwise. Jiggered she might have been, but she was there ahead of him as he turned into Mercer Row. Kai wondered if she'd bust another gusset. She was red-faced and panting, so it seemed likely.
In as few words as so garrulous a lady could manage, Kai learned that she had followed what she called her 'target' after he'd met the messenger. The target had told him that another message was to be left at the 'Hare and Hound' and that he, the messenger, was to go there and see who collected it. Vash'târik would reward him well, and here was something on account.
Kai queried how she had come by this information.
"Well, me dear, my target was facing me so I could lip-read what he was saying. I 'ad to learn to lip-read when I was on the stage, you see, 'cause it wasn't always possible to hear properly over the racket the audience kicked up. Anyway, after the two split up, I followed my target to the Temple of Rosmerta."
Rosmerta was the Varranese goddess of riches. Her temple was equipped with a sizable crypt, owing to so many grateful residents of Harlonne being desirous of making it their final resting place. Désirée had entered the temple hard on the heels of her target and had seen him disappear into the crypt.
Herself familiar with the crypt, she had plucked up the courage to follow after a discreet interval. Taking off her shoes, she had tiptoed down the spiral stairway and peered around the central pillar. The two were out of sight, so she had carefully secreted herself behind the sarcophagus of one of Lord Bayard's ancestors.
There, she had caught the end of their conversation. The final message, to be left at the 'Bleeding Wolf', was to lure Caspar out of town to Allarzan Wood. He would be taken captive and brought to the crypt. The ambush was all set up, and this time, Caspar would not escape.
Her target had then left, bearing with him a sealed parchment. Vash'târik seemed to be settled in his hide-away beneath the temple, so Désirée had bided her time and slipped away unnoticed. Kai was amazed her escapade, not least at her managing to remain unobserved.
"Désirée, you're a wonder!" he exclaimed.
"Well, thank you dearie," she beamed. "It's been a real pleasure. Now all we need is Beau."
"To fetch your sword, of course, while I take you to the temple."
"Of course," echoed Kai.
She really seemed to have the whole thing in hand. He felt tempted to ask her if she was planning to despatch Vash'târik herself, but thought better of it. If the idea was not in her mind already, it would be unwise of him to put it there.
Beau arrived on cue, but had nothing to report except that a shady looking character had left the 'Tradesman' while he, Beau, had been delivering the message to Kai. This was a little worrying in its implications, but there was nothing to be done about it now, save to make haste to the temple. Désirée gave Kai a fairly detailed description of both the temple and the crypt as they went.
On their arrival, they almost collided with a scruffily dressed man with a scar running across his face from nostril to ear-lobe. He took a step back, eyes widening in surprise, then turned and fled back inside.
"My Lord, my Lord, the ol' woman... "
The cries echoed around Rosmerta's Temple. Kai followed in time to see the man disappear down the stairs into the crypt as the echoes died away.
"Oh, shit," Kai muttered to himself. "So much for surprise."
He struggled hastily out of his borrowed clothes with a little help from Désirée. He was just tugging at the ribbon of his bonnet, which refused to yield, when Vash'târik, sword in hand, appeared at the top of the stairs.
Uppermost in Leon's mind was that they must escape from wherever it was that they were being held. This idea was given increased impetus by a feeling of guilt that was as unpleasant as it was unusual. Perhaps it was a dawning sense of responsibility. Their heedless jaunt, so harmless in itself, had thrust their companions into great peril. Then he recalled the reference to the poker, and felt his blood run cold.
"Ewan," he hissed urgently.
There was no response. He tried again. Still no response. Damn. Why did the stupid fellow have to drink quite so much? Must have had twice as much as himself - at least. Never known anyone with quite such a large capacity. Now, when he was needed, he was out cold. Positively comatose.
Well, it was down to himself. Mustn't panic. What time had the watch said it was? It must still be night-time for the watch still to be abroad. He and Ewan wouldn't be missed till dawn at the earliest. That gave him some time, then. First, his bonds.
He squeaked softly. One bold rat came to investigate and succumbed to the barbarian's charms. It took a while but eventually the rope tying Leon's wrists and ankles together began to give. Bliss! He could stretch out at last. No time to rest, however.
Again with the rat's help, he freed his wrists, and the rest was easy. Following the sounds of Ewan's noisy breathing, Leon crawled over to the nightranger. He untied the ropes that immobilized him and shook him vigorously.
"Not now, shweetheart," Ewan mumbled groggily.
Leon slapped his face - hard.
"Ouch! Wos's that for? Wha'd I do? Ooh, my head!"
"Wake up, you boozy sod! We're in trouble!"
"Eh? What? Gods, I feel ill. 'Scuse me "
Leon waited till his companion had finished throwing up, then gave him a brief outline of what he'd slept through.
"Urgh. Right now, death sounds like a good idea," Ewan groaned.
"With a red-hot poker up your arse?"
"That's what they've got planned to help us out of this world and into the next... "
"What?" - the nightranger's brain circuits went into overload - "We've got to get out of here," he squawked.
"Yeah, right. We could do with a light. Glitch took all my stuff. How about you?"
"Damn, yes. He's taken my scrip. Where's the door?"
"Dunno, but the voices came from overhead, so I guess we're in a cellar somewhere."
With an effort, and leaning heavily against each other, they struggled to their feet and groped their way to a wall. It was damp and slimy. Carefully, they inched their way around until, at the beginning of the fourth wall, they found a narrow flight of stone steps.
Leon, being slightly less under the weather, made his way up to a solid wooden trapdoor. He listened awhile then, hearing nothing, put his shoulder to it. It lifted slightly - just enough to show that it was fastened on the other side somehow.
"It's no use," he reported. "They've got a bar or something across it."
Ewan dragged himself up the steps to join his companion. The trapdoor fitted too well to permit him to slide his fingers through. Glitch had not found everything when he searched the nightranger. Ewan slipped a slender blade through the crack and slid it along until it met resistance. It took some effort, but at last, the restraining bar yielded.
Cautiously, the pair eased the trapdoor ajar and peered out. A dim light from somewhere proclaimed the dawn. There was no sign of life, so they lifted the trap high enough for Leon to wriggle out. Ewan followed with a helping hand from the barbarian and the pair took stock of their surroundings.
They were in a small room with one shuttered window that let in a thin shaft of early morning sunlight. It was neatly furnished in a way that suggested a woman's touch. Perhaps it was the flowers on the dresser, though they were beginning to wilt. There was the remains of a meal.
"I've just had an awful thought," Leon said suddenly. "Is this tomorrow - or the day after tomorrow?"
Ewan thought for a moment, screwing his eyes up in the sunlight.
"Nah. I wouldn't feel this bad if it was the day after tomorrow," he croaked.
"Oh, that's all right then," Leon said in relief.
"Speak for yourself!"
Ewan slumped on to a chair and laid his head on the table as the barbarian started looking around. There was no sign of their belongings in the room, so he decided to take a look around. He armed himself with a carving knife from the dresser, went over to the only door and listened intently.
Hearing nothing, he eased the door open. It gave on to a narrow hallway. This must be a private dwelling, he thought. There was a pretty sitting room across the hall, a door, presumably leading on to the street - and freedom! - and stairs leading to an upper floor.
Some instinct, clearly not of self-preservation, took him upstairs. A familiar gravelly voice coming from the left-hand room made him pause at the top.
"Why don't yer make life easier fer both of us an' just tell me where you got it 'idden, gran'ma?"
Glitch's voice seemed to hold even more menace when he spoke quietly.
"I haven't got any gold," came a quavery reply, "only my old man's ring, and you've taken that already. Please let me go."
"Not till we've finished our business here, and not then if ya don't come across wiv ver goods."
The old woman started to cry. It was a bleak pathetic sound, devoid of hope and it caught the barbarian on the raw. He slipped into the room on cat-like feet. Glitch was sitting on the edge of a bed, his back to the door. There would be no more second chances for the evil creature, Leon decided.
There was an ugly look on his face as he grasped a handful of thick, black hair. He yanked the villain's head back hard. The knife slid smoothly and keenly across his throat. Glitch gave a gurgling gasp, thrashing wildly as his blood pumped from the long deep gash. Trust an old woman to keep her carving knife sharp...
The blood spouted everywhere, splattering walls and ceiling alike. Leon hung on to the hair until he was certain that Glitch was dead, then threw the corpse aside in disdain.
"So much for the poker!" he snarled.
It was only then that he saw the little old lady who had been hidden from view behind Vash'târik's hired thug. She was lying on the bed, trussed up like a chicken and covered in Glitch's blood. Horror-stricken, she stared at the barbarian and the dripping knife in his hand. Then she fainted.
Looking round at the mess he had created, Leon laughed a little hysterically. Recovering his composure, he slipped into the other bedroom, lest Vash'târik was still around. He wasn't, so the barbarian returned to the old woman and untied her. She was still unconscious, but seemed to be alive.
He went down to Ewan who raised his head blearily as Leon appeared. Then he blinked and stared at his friend.
"Ye gods! What have you done?" he exclaimed.
"Just finishing what you started," Leon replied with a grin of fierce pleasure.
"Glitch," he added in a tone of immense self-satisfaction, in response to Ewan's look of bewilderment.
Ewan laid his head back on the table.
"For the gods' sakes!" Leon exploded wrathfully. "We're not out of the woods yet, you know. Vash'târik's gone, and "
He broke off as gentle snores came from the nightranger.