Episode One - Everyone could use a little change.
I grew up on the docks, gutting fish and hauling cargo. A pint of ale has been my best mate since I had thirteen winters under my belt, and with fifteen feet of chain in my hands I need take shit from no man. I would be there on those same docks, slogging crates through streets rancid with fish guts still if it were not for ale and the chain.
They served me well, my brothers ale and chain, and they served each other no less. More often than not the one has led to the other, and the night my tale begins would be no different.
For the most part, there is work to be had at all hours of day and night upon the docks. Somewhere there is always some fat merchant in a hurry to get his ship unloaded, willing to pay a little extra sometimes to have it done in the middle of the night, especially when his commission counts on the cargo reaching its destination swiftly or without being seen by port authorities. Tonight, however, the weather had turned treacherous, and it seemed everyone who was either coming or going had done so before the wind whipped the waters into a churning mess. I had stood in one of the shacks by the waterfront that reeks of fish and stinking bodies and soured ale, growing more and more impatient with the loudness of the dockhands waiting like me for work, and the pestering of the whores ready to ply their wares to pass the time, and the wet freezing air blowing through the great many cracks in the walls. Mostly it was the hookers, though. Not that I have anything against a hot whore on a cold night, mind you, but get a handful of cheap hookers in trying to get the attention of a shack full of dock hands, all of whom begin trying to impress the women... reminds me of a flock of sea gulls fighting over fish anuses. It has been my experience that people by themselves are tolerable. It's when you start mixing them that they try my patience. Mind you, I said tolerable by themselves.
When it became too hard to keep cold little hands out of my trousers - and I don't flatter myself that they were trying for my patronage as much as I suspect they were trying for my day's wages, kept in a pouch tucked snugly in my pants - I elbowed my way out of the shack and into the wind. The moon was lost behind fathoms of clouds, hanging low enough to be faintly lit by the lamp light of the city. They were nasty clouds, looking as if they had an urge to void themselves on man and all his doings, and the wind that blew was too cold for rain. Sleet then, or hail, I wagered. It was time for me to piss away my day's earnings with large quantities of ale to warm me up.
The Hammered Hand was my destination, a pleasant place far enough from fish guts and sewer outlets as to not distract from the ale, not so far as to attract a lot of fat merchant bastards. It had its clientele, most of em regulars who kept to their own business and had no quarrel with a half-breed like me. Gray Sam, the barkeep, didn't mind my chain and I had little cause to use it there. The few times I had, drinks had been on Gray Sam for sweeping the rough stuff out onto the street for him. Mostly, though, I could count on long, warm evenings with a mug of ale that never seems to manage to get empty while I have silver in my pouch. And best of all, there would be Minerva.
Hot, mulled ale on a cold night and the pleasure of staring down the front of Minerva's top as she leaned over the bar was about as beautiful a dream as ever I have had, and more than enough to chase away any discomfort the wet, icy splatters starting to sting my cheeks and neck might have caused. My lovely dream was interrupted, however, by shouts and the sounds of running feet. Not my quarrel, whatever it was, but here on the docks people oft had to be convinced to keep the fallout from their squabbles to themselves. Usually it was ale, then chain, but tonight it seemed otherwise.
I was unslinging my chain from around my waist when the first of the footsteps rounded the corner of the warehouse beside me.
"Osgun? Ozzie! You have to help me! I didn't do it, I swear!" The little man veered toward me, coming as if to embrace me or hide behind me. I recognized him as well, however, and swung the chain in warning to keep him at a distance. I did have coins in my pouch.
"It's not my concern, Riordan," I growled, "and if you are wise, you won't get me involved."
"But they're going to kill me, Ozzie, and they have the wrong man!"
"If it's a man they're looking for, why would they be chasing you?"
"I always loved your sense of humor, Ozzie, haven't I always said I loved your sense of humor?"
Riordan Seawolf was a little thief with a big mouth. For all that he talked so much, the times when I occasionally met him on the docks I found that he understood short sentences best. For that reason, I reached out and picked him up by the throat. "I want no part of this." He choked and nodded vigorously. I gave him a gentle heft into a heap of rotting nets and began to move along. At this point, however, his little friends also came round the corner. Behind me, Riordan leapt to his feet.
"Now, you've done it! My buddy Osgun knows I didn't steal your stupid payroll and now he's gonna kick your asses!"
"Oh, is he?"
"Not Izzy -- Ozzie. I know that guy," supplied one of the thugs.
"Izzy, Ozzy, Wuzzy, all I know is he's one half breed who's going to learn his place. We're going to gut your friend like yesterday's catch, Dock Dog, and then we're going to use you both for chum!"
There were four of them, armed with makeshift clubs with nails driven through them, mostly, though one had a large knife and the guy with the big mouth had a short sword. If they were at all acquainted with Riordan, then they weren't going to be in any mood to hear me explain that I had nothing to do with this. In fact, they were already rushing me.
Allow me to take this moment to explain something about myself, and about my chain. My mother was most likely a whore, possibly a bar maid. My father was either a dock hand, or just passing through, but he was definitely an orc. Whether it was love, money or violence - and I can bet you any number of coin which of those options it wasn't - I came into the world some two score winters ago. There have been times when I've had a roof over my head and more that I haven't. There have been times when I have survived on the kindness of others, but more often when I've survived by my wits or by the virtue of the strength of stomach inherited from my father, which allows me to live off fish guts and other less savory items when things get tough. The other gift from my father is of strength. There have been one or two hands down here by the sea that have been stronger than me in my time, but only one or two. That, too, has served me well to keep me alive and employed. It has also served me well in that the chain I carry is no necklace material, but has links the size of a man's wrist. I've sharpened the old hooks at either end, but the weight of it alone is usually enough to cave in a man's skull. The other nice thing about a long chain is the reach. Unless they have a pike or a crossbow, they don't stand a chance.
So the first thug went down a good six or eight feet in front of me - a five pound hook to the jaw will hurt a man real fast. The second one tried to fend off the swinging length with his arm. The bone snapped before the chain finished wrapping around his arm. I jerked backwards and pulled him forward off his feet. That required a sharp tug to free up my chain - so sad, there's that hook again, making things worse - which allowed thugs three and four to close with me. The other end of the chain was wrapped around my off hand, with the hook gripped for weight. Thug three swung his club at me. I ducked, then jabbed with my hook-weighted left. Missed his face, caught him low in the throat. In interests of modesty, I will state for the record that it is possible I didn't break both his collar bones. By the time the big mouthed thug with the short sword got into a good position, his ugly buddy coughing and making small hurt sounds over his throat, I had both ends of my chain back in commission and ready for some close quarter damage.
"I know Riordan Seawolf, true, but I ain't his friend and both of you made a big mistake getting me involved in this." Orcs are by nature repulsive looking. To assume that a half orc is half as ugly would be kind, but stupid. Even without the chain, when I snarl in people's faces, it gets results. Especially when I follow it up by looping my chain around their sword and then punching them in the face with it.
"That was great, Oz..." Riordan's enthusiasm was cut short as I grabbed him by the throat.
"Do you see what you made me do, Riordan?" All four men were laying on the ground in the sleet and the muck, one moving feebly. Two of them probably wouldn't live. The third might, as long as infection didn't set too deep where the flesh was ripped off the arm but he'd never be the same. It would probably be less trouble for me later if I finished them off where they lay, but it was something of a point of ethics for me not to. Many a time as a small (well, smaller than I am now) boy, folk had walked past me when they could have put me out of whatever misery that either cold, hunger, sickness or injury had put me in. Some might even have meant it as a kindness then, but I was grateful now for their indifference.
"Well, I... I... I'll share the money with you of course!"
He had stolen the money. Did I honestly expect otherwise? "You little rat fuck, you lifted an outfit's payroll?" If I had worked all day hauling chests or cleaning fish only to find some skinny little turd had made off with the day's wages, I'd have come after him to beat his head in, too. "I'm gonna squeeze you til you pop."
"No... opi..." he wheezed. I let up on his throat a little. "Opium dealers."
That was different. Opium dealers were parasites, feeding off people's weaknesses. "You better not be lying to me, Riordan. You lie to me and I'll make you my bitch before I kill you." As hard as I was squeezing him, I didn't think his eyes could get wider. It was kind of neat.
"Look! Bag! Look!" he squeaked out. I loosened my grip on his throat a little and propped him against a wall. His feet were still dangling above the cobblestones, but now it was easier for me to get into his side sack with my free hand. Inside was a thin wooden case, about one of my handspans long and two wide, but only about as deep as my thumb. Two of Riordan's thumbs, which might make more sense to you, since you're probably human. Nice box, but it was locked. "Let me," Riordan gasped.
Shrugging, I set him on his feet, but I kept a friendly grip on the back of his neck. True, it didn't smell like fish guts, and neither did the louts on the ground, but if he popped that open and showed me a box of silver, and he was a dead man. If enough of it was gold, I might be convinced that he had gotten it from opium dealers. Honest work on the docks doesn't pay worth a damn.
After one or two unsuccessful tries to shake my hand off his neck, he shot me a sulky look and then glanced around. He didn't need to have. If I honestly thought anyone was coming this way, I wouldn't be standing here around four half dead bodies. "Can we please do this inside somewhere? The cold is numbing my fingers," he whined, a little hoarsely.
"The bodies are freaking me out."
"They should. But it will be easier for the street sweepers to clean up if all the bodies are in one spot."
Riordan frowned. "You want to drag the bodies into a pile? I think some of em are going to wake up."
"No, stupid. I figure I'm gonna have to kill you, and I want to keep it neat. Even cold as it is, you think it's going to be fun for the sweepers in the morning? Dead bodies are disgusting."
"I can't believe you think I bumped off a fish hut! What kind of person do you think I am?" he protested, pushing up one of his sleeves. Tied around his arm was a flat pouch containing an assortment of slender implements. "I know what its like to put in a hard day's work."
"You caught on yet that the more you talk, the more pissed off people get?"
He gave me another hurt look, then slipped two tools into the lock. He jiggled them back and forth until he heard a "click", then put his picks away and reached into the side pack.
"What're you stalling for? Open the box."
"Stick to gutting fish and crushing people, big guy," Riordan sniffed, pulling from his bag what looked like a thin sheet of metal with a cushion on the front. While I arched one hairy eyebrow at him (my "do you really want to piss off the half-orc?" look), he calmly put the plate down in front of the box, then opened the box lid from over the top of the plate. As the lid rose, two tiny needles shot out from the front, as well as one from each side. The one on the left narrowly missed me. The one on the right went into the guy with the broken arm. "Whoa," Riordan muttered, peering at the sides with some surprise. "That was lucky."
"Unnnnnnh..." I gave my crescendoing, "You just pissed off the half-orc" growl. Riordan was not paying attention to me. I stopped in surprise. His eyes were fixed on the box. What the hell could be in the box that could possibly be of more interest than a pissed off half orc three times his size, ready to pulp him into the ground? I didn't like being narrowly missed by nasty little needles. I glanced at the box and got even more pissed off. "That's not even real money!"
Riordan pulled out a coin and held it up between us, transfixed as if he were beholding a god. The sleet was trying to turn to snow, leaving big sloppy trails of ice down our faces, our breath billowing in the air. "Osgun."
"You are a dead man, Seawolf," I said with as much lethal menace as I could muster. It wasn't hard. I don't think I've ever liked Riordan, before or since, but I hated him really bad just then.
"Osgun. My dear Lord Osgun, that is Master Seawolf, to you." A large grin was slowly lighting up his face. There were tears in his eyes that didn't seem to have anything to do with the fact that I was about to murder him. No, wait - deflower him, then murder him, if I recalled my earlier promise correctly. But there he was, spouting nonsense.
"Don't try that old 'I'm so scared my poor little mind has broke' routine with me, Dock Dog. I'm going to kill you. Slow." You know, I've always told myself I don't necessarily like intimidating people, but I'll admit, when I'm trying my damnedest at it and its not working, I get a little upset.
"It's mithril, Osgun. Mithril." I looked at him blankly. The silly little shit looked like he was going to kiss me. "As in one is worth a hundred platinum. As in NOT from a fish hut or a warehouse. As in you and I are filthy, disgustingly, down right disease riddenly, dress me up like your sister and sell me as ugly RICH!"
Numbers were not my strong suit, but I could live off a single platinum piece for... a year, probably. Now that wouldn't include much drinking, but if one of those coins was worth a hundred platinum pieces... I counted the coins off on my fingers and lost track after the third time through using both hands. I could feel that same stupid expression happening to my face.Next week: Home Away From Home - the Hammered Hand
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