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A thief in the night
Some two hours after midnight Lovar was awoken by the wind. From the north-west it had blown up again, cold and full of the potential for rain. At first he took little notice, it was a strong bluster, one that had kicked up small amounts of leaf litter and the odd twig, but within the grove of trees he felt protected from the worst of it. His answer to its intrusion was to roll away from the face of the wind and pull his travel cloak tighter about him. It was only then that he felt the skin at the back of his neck go suddenly cold. From somewhere deep within he had the uncomfortable feeling that he was being watched, that there might be someone at the edge of the grove, studying him. Slowly his hand fell against the dagger he still held within his boot. Lying on his side he could see nothing that appeared dangerous. Except for the rustling of the trees overhead he could hear only the sounds of wind and leaf. The feeling was, however, getting stronger. Then the sharp sound of a twig breaking only a few metres from his head spurred him to action. In one swift movement he kicked off his cloak and rolled to his feet, brandishing his dagger so that it glinted cold and metallic in the glow of the moons.
Standing completely still amongst the shadows of the trees lurked the vague silhouette of a man. Discovered, and without the element of surprise, the thief stood quietly waiting for his intended victim to make the next move. It gave Lovar a chance to size up his opponent. Tall like himself but muscular, the man also held a dagger in hand. He wore the flamboyant clothes of a Faeyen but was too heavyset to be of that ancestry. His face was still blanketed in darkness, however his posture told of a man prepared to fight for what he wanted. Somewhere he had seen the Historians money pouch and contrived to have it for himself. Lovar did not feel disposed to hand it over.
For a short time the two men stood their ground, knives flicking coldly in the moonlight, then the shadowy figure advanced. As the thief moved forward he came out into the pale light and Lovar saw the man's face for the first time. He had the look of a Kalborean and moved with the self-assurance of someone trained in close combat. It was going be a hard fight to win.
The Kalborean did not wait for an introduction. With dagger in hand he rushed at Lovar sweeping wide with his blade, aiming the first strike directly at the Historian's stomach. Lovar jumped back and made a more clumsy attempt at stabbing forward. The thief saw it coming and ducked to the right, positioning himself now so that he was directly between Lovar and the Barge Depot. He meant to have the Historian's money. The thief rushed forward again and raised his dagger above his head, ready to strike down at his foe. Lovar countered this and struck the thief upon the side of the head with his free arm. Such was the power of the blow that it momentarily stunned his assailant. Staggering back the thief shook his head and regained his balance. In the cold moonlight the two began circling each other once again.
Suddenly the tempo of the fight changed. From somewhere within the dark borders of the grove a huge shape rose up, wielding a long-handled shovel like an axe. One stroke of the shovel brought the thief to his knees, a shattered arm dangling by his side. The next stroke collected the side of his head and laid him out cleanly upon the ground.
"There yu go Luv, I don't think he'll be botherin' anybody for a while." It was the Depot Master and she seemed well pleased with herself. "I've been after this little rodent for weeks. Knew he'd pop up sometime, especially if a purse big enough presented itself."
The look on the woman's face said it all. Flushed from the fight Lovar could not contain his anger.
"You old crone! You used me as.. as bait?"
"Oh come now, I shouldn't be usin' such disrespectful tones with someone who holds such a large shovel. Anyway, I wasn't usin' you as bait. I simply chose to let you sleep out here this night. As it was such a nice evenin' I knew you'd enjoy sleepin' under the stars."
The Depot Master grabbed the thief by his tunic, and began to drag him back to the Boathouse. When she reached the trees she turned and motioned to Lovar. He was still standing in the centre of the grove, breathing heavily and feeling very put out.
"Well, come on then. There's no point in you spendin' any more time out here. In two hours your barge'l be pullin' too and you might as well have a hot brew while youre waiting." Immediately she disappeared into the dark, dragging the hapless, groaning thief with her. Lovar stood for a second and then broke into a smile. He could not see the point in arguing with such an imposing women. Quickly he collected his few belongings and repacked his bag. At this time a hot brew was the best thing going and she had saved his life after all.
The remainder of Lovar's night hours were spent sitting before a roaring fire and drinking one of the Depot Master's "hot brews". He didn't know exactly what he should expect from the huge woman, but the drink itself turned out to be a concoction of chocolate, milk and a range of alcoholic leftovers. For Lovar one was more than enough. Any more and he felt sure he would quickly turn into a rolling drunk. The Depot Master had several and they all went straight to her head.
In the ensuing, slightly blurred, conversation she confessed that she had indeed used Lovar as bait, then added that there was a reward on the thief that she fully intended to collect for herself. Last of all she gave up her name, it was Imogen Dushet, and for all her great bulk it seemed to suit her very well. After a pause in her intermittent rambling she began a small interrogation of her own.
"So then my friend, why are you goin' all the way to..to Chemblain? eh? Not the nicest part of the world. Of course if you like fishing and diggin' peat out of the marshes, then it's definitely the place to go." Lovar felt no harm in being forthright with his new found acquaintance.
"Actually I am going to find a friend, someone who I think has been lost for some time."
Madame Dushet slammed her jug on the bench and gave Lovar a half-drunken leer, "A friend...what's is name? Might a heard of him round the traps."
"Actually his name is Donemay. I believe he now lives in or around Kal Chemblain."
"Donemay...Donemay" Madame Dushet was rapidly becoming incoherent but was trying to keep the conversation alive. "Donemay? Cripes, you must mean the old Prelate. What in Providence do you want with that old wizard?"
Lovar was stopped in mid-breath by the casual observance of her knowledge on the Prelate.
"How do you know the Prelate Donemay? Surely there is no common knowledge here of his existence?"
"Well why wouldn't there be? He probably doesn't know it but most of the Barge Captains have known about the old faker for good on thirty years. One of his old students recognised him when he first arrived in Chemblain. Didn't wanna spoil his little secret so didn't let on."
"And how is it that you might know this, Madame Dushet?"
The Depot Master slapped Lovar on the shoulder, " Oh come on now, don't get all high'n mighty with me. I finds out most things over a jug of hot brew. But what do you care about Donemay anyway? He's been happy growin' his mushrooms an' the like for almost three decades. Those Fakers at the Guild have left him alone so why should you wanna stir his pond. Eh? Oh cripes, suddenly everythin's going all fuzzy..."
It was the last thing Lovar ever heard the Depot Master say. The effects of her powerful drink suddenly overwhelmed her and she slumped forward onto the table, snoring loudly as her spilled drink poured quietly all over her shirtsleeves.
Lovar sat back in his chair and considered Madam Dushet's words. He found it hard to believe that a Prelate of the Guild, no matter how old, had somehow remained unknown to the Synod for such a long period of time. Especially considering it seemed to be common knowledge in these parts anyway. Still, stranger things had happened in the world, and it did confirm his suspicion that he was indeed looking for one of the most important men ever produced by the Guild. Her reference to the LoreMages as "Fakers" was somewhat disconcerting though, but it was probably the effects of the brew talking.
His thoughts were broken by the sounds of a bell ringing somewhere outside. The only window in the boathouse faced towards the river and Lovar peered out through it to see if this might be the river barge he had been waiting for.
The early morning had become wrapped in fog whilst Lovar had been drinking with Madam Dushet. Within its eerie vapours there was little he could see until the faint orange glow of a torch appeared in the darkness. Slowly a huge barge rose out of the gloom, making very little sound as it pulled too against the pier. Across its bow was emblazoned the name, "Swan's Errant". Quickly three men jumped from somewhere within its bulk and began fixing mooring lines to a number of posts driven into the river bottom. As soon as this was done a ramp lowered with a resounding crunch onto the wharf. The sound was soon followed by the calls of a particularly short man, as he walked quickly towards the boathouse.
"Imogen...Imogen! By the Fates you'd better not be drunk again. I've got a full load to get off before sunrise and I'm gonna need your help. Imogen!"
His cries went unheeded and when he found Lovar leaning against the side of the boathouse he was not a happy man.
"Where is that old stewpot? And who in Providence's good name are you?"
Lovar bowed respectfully and gave the Captain the news he did not want to hear.
"Madame Dushet resides within, drunk into unconsciousness, and currently sole warden to one very unhappy thief that has felt the hard edge of her shovel."
The Captain had to smile. "So she finally got that vagabond? Probably used you as bait Ill warrant? I bet that makes you feel well used?"
Lovar was not about to dispute that, however he had a more important objective in mind.
"Her ladyship has informed me that you may take paying passengers on your return journey. I am in need of quick passage to Kal Chemblain and are prepared to pay in advance."
The Captain did not hesitate in his response. "My friend, if you have the money then you've got passage to anywhere you want to go. One thing though. If you want quick passage then you're gonna have to help with the unloading. If nothin' else it'll clear your head of that god-awful concoction she's probably been fillin' you with."
For the Historian there followed two hours of hard work. As his feet had not been prepared for the rigours of the road, so his hands were unprepared for the toil that awaited him. The barge was loaded with pallettes of peat and a large number of crates crammed with fresh produce for the markets of Miller's Crossing. All had to be unloaded. It was a job that left his shoulders aching and his arms feeling as if they had been tied with leaden weights, but he did what he could. Quickly the Historian learned the use of a hoist and gimbal, and along with the other eight members of the barge crew soon had their cargo neatly stacked along the wharf.
By sunrise a series of wagons began appearing along the track, their horses' breath fuming in the cold air. For the wagoneers the job was just beginning, but the crews work was done. The Captain, who insisted on being called Raef, lost no time in signing off on his cargo and getting his men back on board. At a shuffle Lovar grabbed his pack and followed the crew onto the Barge. In the half-light of dawn he watched as a set of sails were raised and the vessel slowly entered the main current of the river. By six bells the Barge was once again making way down the wide reach of the Laneslem, and one very tired Guildsman leaned against the balusters, watching the flat landscape of the river plain slowly pass by.
The passage of the Swan's Errant
The morning wore on, the waters a calm reflection of the blue sky above. Flocks of birds circled overhead as the Swan's Errant cut a clean wake through the Laneslem's languid flow, and as the river passed Lovar tried to find rest. It had been two days since he had found meaningful sleep but the calm of quiet slumber eluded him. There were too many questions and little enough time to find answers. His mind boiled with possibilities as he stared out at the passing terrain, trying to bring order to thoughts that raced before him, however his contemplations gave him no solace. In his fatigue all that registered were the unmistakable signs of another stormfront developing against the northern horizon, a series of grey flecked clouds that sat ominously in the distance.
Lovar had never been to The Flats, as the Barge crew called them. In fact he had never taken a river journey of any type before. About him the crew of the Swan's Errant hurried about their duties whilst their Captain barked orders from his position at the foredeck. The Historian could say quite truthfully that the Barge was very different from what he had expected. Squat and wide of beam, it was shallow draughted and floated something like a cork in the water. Its main propulsion was the languid current of the river and a two masted rig that allowed a pair of huge sails to billow out before the boat. Unlike most vessels he had seen the Swan's Errant had a raised foredeck structure, upon which stood a partially open wheelhouse. It was from there that the Captain steered and gave his commands. For all its ungainly appearance it cut through the water easily, and with a stiff wind at its back was making excellent time.
Surrounded by the activity of the vessel Lovar knew he would not find sleep so he made his way to the foredeck and stood with the Captain as the boat negotiated the wide bends and curves of the Laneslem.
"Captain Namawe, you have not yet asked for the cost of my passage. Who should I see about making payment?"
The Captain held the wheel of his barge loosely, turning it slowly as he steered his vessel around sandbars and huge floating islands of reeds. He was doing it so deftly Lovar felt he could have done it blindfolded. It took him a moment to answer.
"I believe that passage has already been paid for in full. Your work at the loading dock was more than sufficient for the passage to Kal Chemblain. However, if you wish food then go see the cook below. I am sure he will take at least one coin from you for the privilege."
Lovar felt he should protest but Raef Namawe was a man who did not brook an argument well. He had seen the outcome of at least one altercation amongst his crew, and the Captain had a biting tongue when he chose to use it. Discretion was a useful tool at times and Lovar decided to use his now.
"Captain, when do you think we will reach Kal Chemblain?"
Namawe looked at the position of the sun and then at the encroaching cloud at his rear.
"Midday I'd think. And not a moment too soon. Looks like we're in for another storm and its colour says its gunna be a beaut."
The Captain returned to his duties and the two men remained silent as the Swan's Errant continued upon its journey . After a time Namawe turned to the Historian.
"Your name is Lovar isn't it?"
Stunned that the Captain should know his name he took a step back and tried to compose himself. He had not mentioned his name here, nor to Madame Dushet. He felt danger at hand and was not going to take any chances. He pulled his dagger and backed up further.
"Who are you? How is it that you know my name?"
The Captain smiled and waved back four members of his crew who had begun running from the aft of the ship at the first glint of Lovar's weapon.
"Come, there is no need for blades aboard the Swan's Errant. Explanations can be found for all manner of mysteries and there is an answer to your question... as long as you allow me to give it."
Lovar would not put down his weapon but he motioned the Captain to explain.
"You are the Tak Malleus Lovar if I am not mistaken. I was expecting you."
"How? My mission is know to no-one but myself. State your true purpose here or I swear I will..."
"Or you'll what, my over-excited friend? Remember you are aboard my vessel and I have eight trusted crew, most of whom will not appreciate having their Captain sliced and diced. Put the weapon down man. I swear if I'd thought you were going to react this way I would have had you bound and gagged first!"
Turning quickly Lovar could see now all eight of the crew standing close upon the stairs below the foredeck. Apart from jumping into the Laneslem there was not a lot that he could do. With a shrug he placed his blade carefully upon the deck.
"There now, thats better. Now we can converse like civilised men." Namawe pointed to the dagger and one of his crew quickly picked it up and placed it within his loose clothing.
"We live in dangerous times Lovar but be assured that there is no danger here." Upon the deck there rested a number of small barrels. Namawe pulled one of them close and sat down, he motioned to another near Lovar and indicated that he should do the same. As soon as the Captain left the wheel it was manned by one of his crew, and only after Namawe was sure it was under proper control did he settle himself to talk.
"Firstly I should explain how it is that I come to know your name. The short answer is that I was told by Mah Horan to expect you. It is surprising that you came alone though, I would have thought that the old Tak would have taken advantage of another opportunity to visit Kal Chemblain."
There was no way that Raef Namawe could know that the Tak Mah Horan was dead. Lovar knew that he was one of the few people who knew of Horan's passing and it was a grievous task to have to be the one to tell the Captain. Namawe took the news stoically.
"Now that is a dark piece of news and no mistake. I have known the Tak for a good decade now and can say truthfully that it is a great loss to the Guild."
"To all of us." Lovar added, "In fact it is because of that last conversation that I must reach Kal Chemblain as soon as possible."
Namawe leant closer and his tone became conspiratorial. "Horan told me to expect you but did not say for what purpose. I will tell you now that the Captain of the Swan's Errant is not all that he may seem, nor is his crew. If you wish to reach Chemblain I will need to know why."
The Historian heard the underlying tension in the Captain's words. He decided quickly that he must trust this man. If there had been any malice in his character Lovar knew that he would already be floating face down in the Laneslem, and his money pouch would be swinging from Namawe's belt instead.
"I am travelling to Kal Chemblain to see the Prelate Donemay. Mah Horan indicated that information vital to the safety of the Guild could be found there, and I have the firm belief that a crisis is developing that the Prelate may be able to stop."
Namawe sat back and considered the Historian's words. "So, you know of the Prelate. This is unwelcome news and no mistake. But it is news that forces me to show my hand. The Prelate is currently the focus of both our lives Lovar. You may wish to see him but he is my responsibility. And you will only see him through me."
"Fourteen years ago I was posted to Kal Chemblain as Protector to the retired Prelate. He does not know of my existence except as Master of the Swan's Errant. It is very important that this remains so."
Namawe adjusted his seating and continued. "As you are aware, there is only one way to get to Kal Chemblain, and that is by the river. As Captain I know exactly who is entering the town and with the help of my 'crew', and a few other trusted men who remain within the town, I ensure the Prelate's safety."
Lovar lent forward, "You're a Ranger aren't you?"
To this the Captain nodded.
"Of a fashion but, until the Prelate dies, this is my posting. The old man has proven to have amazing longevity. He has already outlived two previous Captains, and I fear that I shall be enjoying the profits of the river for some years to come." With that the Captain sat back and awaited Lovar's response.
"Can you take me to the Prelate when we land?" he asked. How Namawe answered would determine whether Lovar could expect any further trouble from this man.
Namawe nodded his head. "My duty is to the protection of the Prelate, but Mah Horan vouched for your character. I see no danger here. Upon our arrival in Chemblain I will take you directly to the Prelate. But be warned. Any mention of my true position, or any harm that comes to the Prelate from your visit will have repercussions."
The way Namawe stressed the last word left Lovar in no doubt that the Captain's first duty was to the safety of his Prelate. And in that the Historian could see an ironic aspect to the Prelate Donemay's situation. In his own mind he believed that he was living a life of quiet retirement, the outside world content to believe him dead. And yet it would seem that most who had contact with him knew exactly who he was, but chose to leave him in peace. It was a strange situation indeed.
Now that their mutual positions were exposed the tension between the two men evaporated. Lovar and Namawe talked for a short time, mostly about the happenings in the north and the circumstances of the decimation of the Third Brigade. Namawe was not surprised that they were so unprepared.
"It is unfortunate that they did not consider the unusual nature of the weather here. With the Dwarvendim manning Maenum there has not been much need for the Army on the frontier for almost a generation. A lack of experience will always leave you vulnerable, and it is difficult to appreciate the power of the storms until you are forced to endure one yourself. Such a loss will make the defence of the south all the harder."
With that the Captain returned to his wheel and Lovar was left to enjoy the remainder of his journey. Ahead the Laneslem widened, a number of smaller rivers and streams emptying into its volume as it flowed slowly to the south-east. The river banks were choked with reeds and there was a huge variety of bird and animal life that could be seen within. It was, in fact, one of the reasons that the town of Kal Chemblain had been established. The abundance of wildlife made for good hunting, and the higher ground inland proved to be fertile soil for market gardens, and the growth of medicinal herbs that were highly sought after by apothecaries. In spite of its isolation it was rumoured to be quite a sophisticated township. An ideal place, one might expect, to hide away from the world.
To the north Lovar could see the storm growing in intensity, watching carefully as it built great turrets of cloud upon the horizon. Again towers of cloud were billowing up from the mountains beyond, and upon the wind he could smell a vague hint of rain. Although he would not wish to be caught upon the river in a full-blown storm, his fears lay instead with Pel and the others attempting to help the remnants of the Third Brigade. Another storm of such magnitude, striking so quickly after the first would be a cruel stroke indeed. Still contemplating the storm he sat back against the deck rails and hoped that Providence would spare them this time. With nothing to do the Historian placed his feet up against a mast support and finally fell into sleep. For the remainder of his journey he slumbered as the Laneslem slowly meandered on its way.
At midday the barge hove too against the wharf at Kal Chemblain. The Historian did not see the Swan's Errant arrive, he remained deep in sleep as the crew worked about him, throwing lines and securing the vessel for unloading. It was a crewman kicking his feet aside to clear the mast that awoke Lovar from his slumber. With a start he found himself falling to the deckboards, an ungainly attempt to save himself leaving him sprawled on the rough timbers. His rest had left him stiff and sore and it took a moment for him to awaken properly. As he attempted to clear his head he rose from the deck and made his way to the deck rails for his first look at the river port of Kal Chemblain.
The town was large, quite a deal larger than he had expected, the wharf and surrounding docks carefully cut and set structures of stone. Behind the waterfront the town spread out for some distance to the east and west. With no need for a defensive wall the townspeople had built outwards, and allowed themselves not only spacious homes but generous blocks of land as well to build them on. It looked very similar to the way people built in the south, and it struck Lovar as he surveyed the tall stone warehouses that lined the docks that Kal Chemblain was a very prosperous town indeed. As he stood at the rails Namawe came up beside him.
"Not a bad place to look at in the bright light of day eh? I have a few things that must be done before we can go to see the Prelate which should take about an hour. If you like you can go for a walk and try some of the local taverns, there are three here that are particularly good. At first bell past midday I'll return, and if you're about we'll go see Donemay together."
Lovar was hungry, his last decent meal had been interrupted in Baellum by the storm so the Captain's advice was well received. The dock was a hub of activity, the empty barge the focus of attention for a number of workgangs jockeying to get their cargoes on board. All about the wharf Lovar could see stacked boxes of vegetables, fabrics piled in great rolls, and a wide range of animal pelts, racks of drying meat, and boxes of aromatic herbs. The Swans Errant seemed to be the lifeblood of the town's commerce, and with the speed with which it was being loaded would soon be setting sail once more.
From the dock the Historian made his way past the busy merchant houses and found a path to the main street. It was also in the midst of an active days commerce. Shops and other merchant establishments lined both sides of the thoroughfare and the cobbled streets were filled with townspeople going about their business. In the centre of the street stood a large imposing building, and at the front corner a map of the town and its surrounds. Crossing the street, Lovar's curiosity, and his passion for anything cartographic, pulled him towards the map. It was a fine representation of the town and its neatly laid out streets, providing information on both the settlement and its main businesses. What surprised the Historian was that Kal Chemblain was the centre of a much larger collection of hamlets that had expanded out into the marshlands. Areas of high ground had progressively been settled and this had led to a network of roads and dikes being built to connect them all. In many ways these settlers had become self-sufficient and even in their isolation had provided for themselves all the good things of life. Looking about Lovar could see that there was nothing drab nor provincial about the town or its people. He smiled as he realised that he knew very little about this part of the world. Kal Chemblain had previously been nothing more than a point on a map to him, but in reality it was a thriving region of almost three thousand souls. Its isolation had kept it a well-guarded secret. He could see why the Prelate might choose to live here.
A further investigation of the map indicated a tavern at the end of the street to the east. With money pouch in hand he decided that a good meal would be the best preparation for his meeting with Donemay. Within the rush and bustle of the town Lovar made his way to the tavern and soon found himself at the door of the Travellers Rest. From within wafted the sweet smell of roasting meat and hot bread. That was enough temptation for him. With no reason to delay he pushed his way through the swinging doors at its entrance and disappeared inside.
As Lovar moved into the comfortable interior of the tavern another, more furtive figure, emerged from the anonymity of the crowd and followed him to the entrance. The man did not enter but stood near the front steps, watching carefully as the Historian ordered some food and then made his way to one of the tables. From the corner of his eye Lovar saw the man watching him as he settled down to eat. He recognised his watcher as one of the crew of the Swan's Errant, and had to smile at the Captain's earnest desire to trust no-one and his need to always know what was going on. It was so typical of the Rangers. Years of service as a Barge Captain had not worn the edge of his commitment to his Prelate. Lovar was determined though that no intrusion would dull the enjoyment he would find within the meal that had been laid before him. Meat, bread and a range of roasted vegetables was more food than he had seen for days and it was time to eat. With one set of eyes firmly placed upon him he began his meal.
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JOTUN OF THE WEST
Shards of Moonlight
A Murder of Crows
The Horns of Gorgoroth
Slaves of Creation
The Book of Scars
CHRONICLES COMPANION SERIES
The Inquisitor's Lament
Honour Amongst Thieves
The Last Stone King