NaNoWriMo 2007NaNoWriMo 2007 Winner

The NaNoWriMo is the National Novel Writing Month, and takes place every November. All you have to do is write a 50,000+ word novel in a month.

My entry for this year was a fantasy novel, a sequel to last year's, plot and characters entirely from my own head, but how the characters acted, and any incidents that occurred in the story, were decided by using GURPS (Generic Universal RolePlaying System) 3rd Edition. By this method, if (for example) the characters met the guards, I rolled to see how many guards there were, I rolled to see whether the characters could hide or bluff successfully or not (if they wanted to, that is - cocky bastards), and if not, I'd roll out the combat. And yes, I did let them get their arses kicked.

Book II of the Have Sword & Sorcery: Will Travel™ series.
(If you enjoy these extracts and want to read the whole thing, you can buy it.)

Opening    Cadell    Night-time Adventures    Blackmail for Beginners
Favourite Lines

 

Opening

The small cart rattled as it was pushed along the narrow mountain road. The howl of the wind covered most of the noise of the rattling, and it also didnít help that it looked like it would start pouring with rain in a few minutes. The three figures surrounding the cart were swathed in cloaks that were well-fastened against the cold. They turned yet another corner, and the leading figure raised their arm and said something that was immediately lost to the wind. The cart stopped, and one of the two pushing it yelled out, "What?"

The lead figure turned and made their way back past the cart so that all three of them could talk without shouting so much. "The Temple!" she said. "About another mile!"

"Thank God for that!" said the slighter of the two pushing the cart. "We can get out of this bloody wind!"

The larger of the two men pushed back his hood and peered through the gloom of the late afternoon overcast. "I can't see a bloody thing!" he muttered.

"It's not far - come on!" The woman returned to her position in front of the cart, and started leading the way again. The two men bent to the cart's handles again and started pushing.

It took them three-quarters of an hour to reach the ruins they were heading for, during which time the last of the light faded from the sky. They went the last quarter of a mile at an extremely cautious pace, lest they fall over the vertiginous drop to their left. They couldn't light a torch, as the wind would have foiled any attempt at making flame while they were still unsheltered on the path. They pushed the cart into the lee of one of the half-fallen walls, wedged the wheels with a couple of bits of ex-masonry, and sat down against the wall, two huddling together while the third built a fire with wood that had been on the cart. When it was ready, he pulled a tinderbox out from somewhere under his cloak, and carefully made a flame, which he applied to the fire. It was soon burning merrily, and the three of them unwrapped their cloaks and began warming themselves.

After a short while, the one who had lit the fire asked, "Why are we doing this? Why don't we just knock?"

"Because we're not sure what day it is, Cullan. We don't know if it's been a year or not yet - the Sage might not let us in."

"'Year yet, or not'," corrected Cullan.

"What?"

"You said, 'a year or not yet', when you should have said, 'a year yet, or not'."

"Shut up, Cullan," sighed the big man. "Use that oh-so-powerful mind of yours for working out whether we're in time or not, not for grammatical pedantry!"

"Alright, Kenyon! Keep your hair on!" Cullan sat in silence while he warmed his hands for a minute or two. "Okay - when did we leave Doronatha?"

"The city, or the country?" asked the woman.

"The city."

"'Bout a month ago," she replied.

"Yes, but when?"

"I don't know! It was ..."

"December the third," Kenyon supplied. "We tried leaving on the first, but our Captain didn't want us leaving until that last shipment of silk had gone, remember?"

Cullan nodded. "Right, okay, December the third. Took us, what, two weeks to get to Akallmil by the coast road, right?"

"Right. And those bloody Dwarfs held us up for a day at the border!"

"Now now, Alys - it wasn't our fault we just happened to be passing when that happened."

"Right," said Alys, "and it also didn't happen to be our fault that they were willing to pay us to help get their stuff back, which you saw as a brilliant opportunity to pay Kenyon back what you owed him!"

"Hey! It wasn't my fault those tiles slipped! If the owner of that house had maintained his property properly, I wouldn't have fallen and nearly broken my back. If I was earning for those two weeks I was laid up, I wouldn't've owed anyone anything!"

"Except the price of the stuff you thieved," Kenyon smirked.

"Oh yeah, like being a guard for a mafiosa is a noble job?"

"Pays well."

"It'd have to!"

"Guys!" Alys interrupted. "You're getting off the point! Fifteen days from Doronatha to Akallmil, takes us to December the eighteenth. How long from there?"

Cullan unhooked his water bottle and took a swig before answering. "We followed the coast road again - which incidentally, why? Why didn't we just cut through the country? It'd've bin a lot easier!"

"Because you know that Akallmil is in an almost permanent state of civil war between the Dwarfs in the mountains, and the Elves in the forests. We didn't want to get caught up in all that."

"Yeah, coast road was safest," Kenyon added. "Remember when we got to Oryan's Shoulder? We saw those attack ships burning just off the coast, and the sea beams glittering in the dark from the battle at the Tannhouser Gates?"

Cullan nodded. "Did look kinda pretty," he mused. "Anyway, okay, war, yes, so, coast road. Took us a week to get round the Shoulder, then we left the coast and headed due west into these mountains, which took another week. So that's twenty-nine days - hey, the Turn of the Year!"

"Happy birthday, Morgan," Alys said, toasting her with a swig from her own water bottle.

"She's what, seventeen now?" asked Kenyon.

Cullan closed his eyes and threw back his head in thought, trying to remember a conversation held in a cellar a little over a year ago. "Yes," he eventually decided.

"Right, so we're in time then," Kenyon said, making to stand up.

"We might not be," Alys put out her hand to hold him down, "it took us a few more days to get to Danash then to here again."

"We did, unfortunately," Cullan said. "Let me think ... We crossed the border back into Turnobae on the Turn of the Year. We arrived at Danash the next day, got paid first thing next morning..."

"Stingy bastard," Kenyon muttered.

"... and arrived here by carpet two days later. So that puts us at January the fifth - what day is it today?"

"Well, where'd we get to in our reckoning? Turn of the year when we reached these mountains, yes?"

"Yes. And we've been going through them for, lessee, six days. Great, Westnight!"

"January the sixth! Yes! We can knock!"

They all got up. They unloaded the supplies they'd brought with them on the cart (mostly firewood and extra food & water, but there was a couple of helmets, a spare sword, and a greataxe as well), and with Cullan holding a stick from the fire for light, they found the still-intact portico that was the front door to the Ruined Temple of Rast, domain and school of the Sage Mordlin. Kenyon used the butt of his greataxe to hammer a couple of times on the blank stone of the back wall. They waited quietly, muttering things like, "It'll be good to see Morgan again," and, "I wonder if Mordlin'll have any work for us?" After a few minutes, one of Mordlin's typically silent guards appeared and beckoned them inside. They were led through the maze of underground passages to the same rooms they had been accommodated in last year, where they were met by an Elf they recognised as Fingolfin, one of Mordlin's senior aides.

"Greetings," he said, calmly. "You are timely in your arrival. The Sage will see you tomorrow at eleven. In the meantime, you know your way around."

"Can we see Morgan?" asked Cullan, dropping his share of the gear from the cart.

Fingolfin hesitated only slightly. "Of course. She is quartered on the third level, room seven." He made to leave again, hesitated, and turned back to them. "Your personal luggage will be safe here, of course, but your cargo may be better off being deposited with the pursery." He smiled, and left.

Kenyon removed his helmet so he could scratch his head. "Where's the pursery?"

"Back of the refectory, wasn't it?" asked Alys.

"Probably," Cullan shrugged. He picked up his load again. "One way to find out."

The pursery was indeed next to the refectory. They dropped their stuff off, stopped long enough for a bowl of soup, then went to find Morgan. They made their way down to the third level, found the student quarters, and went along the corridor until they found room seven. Cullan knocked on the old wooden door. For some reason, there seemed to be a sudden absence of a faint background noise that none of them had really noticed before. After a few seconds, the door opened a few inches, and Morgan's flushed face appeared in the gap. The door opened wider, revealing Morgan standing there wearing nothing but a blanket held at her throat by her right hand.

"Morgan!"

"Cullan! Alys! Kenyon! I wondered when you were getting here! It's so good to see you!" Her left hand appeared from under the blanket in an attempt to hug them, an attempt that was aborted as soon as she realised that this revealed what she was not-wearing underneath.

"Good to see you too," said Cullan carefully, peering into the dark room. "I hope that young Elf lad is treating you alright?"

Morgan (and her smile) froze. "Yes! He is! I'll, er, just go and ..."

Alys hauled her male companions out of the doorway by their collars. "We'll see you in the refectory in half an hour," she told them all, and gave the two men a push in the direction of away.

"Thank you!" Morgan called, and shut the door.


 

Cadell

They arrived at the boundary of the Cloaca Swamp an hour and a half later. The stench was appalling - it wasn't hard to see why even monsters avoided this place. They turned south, and wound their way along the eastern boundary where solid ground gave way to more suspect ground. No one wanted to put a foot wrong. It took another hour to get close to the first of several old rotting trees that were visible. It was some way from the visible edge of the swamp, but they still didn't like to get too close. Cullan peered at it, to see if he could spot anything. He saw a brown-clad arm protruding from round the trunk.

"Hey there! Are you Cadell?" he called.

A lean man in drab but good clothes stepped out from behind the trunk. He had close-cropped dark hair, and appeared to be festooned with weapons. "I might be!" he answered. "Who might you be?"

"Cullan, Alys, Kenyon and Morgan, with orders from General Kael!"

The man gestured for the others to wait there. He disappeared behind the trunk again for a moment, then reappeared, somewhat less festooned with weapons, and began walking towards them. He reached them in a minute or two. "I'm Cadell," he confirmed. "Orders?" His gravelly voice sent shivers down all their spines. Morgan took the orders out and handed them over. He slit the seal, gave them a cursory glance, then tucked them inside his shirt. "This way," he said, and marched off towards the east.

The others followed him, Cullan leading. "Have you been waiting long?" he asked.

"Later," replied Cadell. He carried on walking, and no-one else broke the silence. It took about fifteen minutes to reach their destination - a pit in the lee of a dead tree, with the obvious remains of a camp. Cadell sat down with his back to the tree, his head resting on the trunk, his back up against the soil. "Sit. Introductions?"

"I'm Cullan. This is Alys, that's Morgan, and this is Kenyon." They acknowledged their names.

"I'm Cadell." He turned to Morgan. "You're injured."

"We were attacked by a giant pig-thing," she said. "I got gored."

"I can treat it, if you like."

"Thank you."

"Maybe later," cut in Alys. "Why all the mystery?"

Cadell leaned forward. He raised his hand to his mouth, pulled off his glove with his teeth, and began talking as he trimmed his fingernails. "There is no mystery. I'm not a very ... people person. I don't like ... crowds. General Kael ... and every other employer I've had ... employs me to ... do my job. That entails ... doing things on my own ... usually killing people, scouting paths ... investigating things, that sort of thing. My job ... is suited for one person, ... and that is the way I prefer it." He finished that hand, and started on the other.

"So what were you doing out here, when you got the message from General Kael?" asked Alys.

"Patrolling ... Making sure nothing too dangerous ... was in the area. It's not ... good business to have your allies ... set upon by ... abominations from a dead mage's ... breeding pits."

"And this is where they'd come from, is it?"

"No. The grids are still intact ... However, the road to be used by ... the Inpokkar army when it advances ... on Morss, is not far away, and ... you can't be too careful." He finished with his hand and put his gloves on again.

"So, that's what you were doing? Were you told to do that, or did you think it up yourself?"

"I had no other assignment, and we are all told to make ourselves useful in those circumstances."

"And you still get paid for it?"

"Not by the hour. So - you've been into Morss before?"

It was the first question he'd asked that had some relevance. "Yes - last year," Cullan replied.

"How did you get in then?"

"Mordlin opened a gate for us."

"And the Tower?"

"Through the sewers."

Cadell smiled. "Not the first time someone tried that. Won't be the last, either."

"That's your plan, then, to get us in through the sewers?"

"If nothing else presents itself, yes."

"But I thought General Kael was warned against doing that with his army?"

"And with good reason. An army going through those sewers would be chewed to pieces by the creatures."

"And so will we be!"

"Not necessarily. We won't be strung out for a mile or more, and we'll always be moving. That means anything that wants to get us will have to hunt us, not just find us." He grinned, and once again the others felt shivers run down their spines.

"Okay, you're starting to creep me out, just a little," Cullan said.

"If I creep you out, what do the monsters make you feel?" asked Cadell, quickly.

"Annoyed."

Cadell grinned again, and leaned back. "Good answer. Anything else I should know?"

"General Kael said your job would be to get us in safely, to the city and then the Tower, and then keep people distracted long enough for us to do our job," Kenyon said.

"Don't think I can manage it?"

"I'd like to know how you are going to manage it."

"By killing everyone and everything that stands in our way."

"It took all four of us to take down that pig-monster," Alys told him, "and we met bigger things than that last year. You're that good?"

"Yes," Cadell said, simply.

There was a long moment of silence.

"You'd better be able to keep to your promises," Cullan finally said.

"I can," Cadell replied. "Now, how about I take a look at your wound?"

Morgan assented, and soon Cadell had done a rather more effective job on healing Morgan's wound. It was early afternoon by the time he finished, so they ate lunch. Cadell advised that it would be a good idea to get started well before dark - there were places to rest in the sewers, if you knew where to look, but the nearest one was several miles away.

"But, what about the grids, I thought you said they were still intact? How do we get in?"

"Not by just walking up the tunnel," Cadell replied. "There's an access hatch not far from where the tunnel starts, inside the grids. It has no ladder, and opens inwards, so creatures can't climb out. The downside is that when we go in, we'll have to leave the hatch open after us."

"We have a rope for getting down. How far is it?"

"Twenty feet? Too long for a pole to reach up and close it with."

"How about magic?" asked Morgan.

A short pause. "That might work," Cadell said. "Do you know many spells?"

Morgan shrugged. "Perhaps thirty? I've been learning from Mordlin for the last year."

Again the spine-tingling grin. "Good. He's an efficient teacher, by all accounts. Can you light things up?"

"I know Light, yes."

"Good. We won't need to gather firewood to use as torches then. We may as well start now!" He stood up, put on his pack, checked that he hadn't dropped anything, and began walking. The others got up, picked up their things, and hurried after him.


 

Night-time Adventures

Kenyon unhooked the line for them, and after coiling it up, they set off through the mostly-silent city. They could hear patrols in this affluent part of town, but Cullan's experience of night-prowling and Alys' natural smooth movement kept them out of harm's way. For a few streets at least. Cullan decided to take a quick detour into the rear yard of a still-open tavern - it must have been one of very few still operating in the besieged city, and there must have been something special about it to be open so late at night that it was early in the morning. Not that it was doing a roaring trade, but it was enough.

"Cullan! What..?"

"He was annoying me."

"Cadell? Ignore him. He's so used to doing his own thing he can't take that others might have different ways of doing it."

Cullan snorted. "We're away from him for a couple of hours, anyway."

"Why priests robes, anyway?"

"Priests don't get press-ganged, they can go practically anywhere, the robes'll conceal our gear, and the hoods'll hide our faces."

"You think we'll be recognised?"

"I think we'll need to take every precaution in case someone gets suspicious of these new nosy priests."

"Right. So, just in case then." Cullan nodded. "So what do I do at Saint Maruk's, then?"

Cullan hesitated. "If worst comes to worst, kill anyone trying to kill me. If it comes to second worst, you're my alibi."

"Your what?"

"The captain who's billeted back at the house - he came back from duty early with a whore. That means the practice has not been clamped down on since the siege started. And you remember last year?"

"Oh, Hell, Cullan I'm not getting my top off in the bloody street!"

"You won't have to!" he protested. "Just pretend to be, y'know, with me."

"And what about the fact that I've got more weapons than you? Whores don't carry bows, or two swords and a knife!"

"Okay, fine! We're both skiving soldiers looking for somewhere quiet to have a bit of fun!"

Alys rolled her eyes. "And what do we do when they arrest us and try and return us to our unit?"

"Okay, fine! We'll say we're on our way back from a brothel party!"

"Or maybe you could go to a brothel party."

The two of them froze. They turned to the shadows of the gate Cullan had left mostly closed. Two men were there. Large men. Holding crossbows ready. They weren't military.

"Do you know where the nearest brothel is?" Cullan asked.

"We do, actually," said one of them. "And we think you'd both make good employees."

"Screw off!" they said together.

"That's rather the idea," said the talkative one. "Handsome young lad like yourself, quite a few rich biddies who'd pay for that sort of service, let alone the queerer sort of regular customer. And as for you, lady, that fine figure you've got there'll have them queuing up."

Cullan sighed and looked at Alys. "Have you got anything to throw?"

"Cullan - they've got crossbows."

"That's right, young lady, we have," said the talkative one, whose oily voice was starting to annoy them.

"There's only two of them," Cullan remarked. Someone not familiar with him would have missed the wink.

Alys sighed. "Allllright - but it won't do any good." She turned to their captors. "Currently, we don't have much choice." She held her elbows stiff to her sides, keeping her hands away from her body as she walked slowly towards them.

"I didn't say I was totally convinced!" Cullan said, remaining where he was.

The one who hadn't spoken yet adjusted his aim. "Convincing isn't what we get paid for," he said.

"You idiots get paid?" Cullan asked as Alys drew level with the one on the right.

Two things happened at once. The first was that Alys pivoted on her left foot and slammed the edge of her hand at the talkative one's windpipe. The other was that Cullan drew his new throwing knife with the remarkable speed that comes with long practice, and threw it at the other one. They both staggered back from the surprise attacks, dropping their crossbows, then Cullan was drawing his sword and advancing on the one who still had his knife in his chest, while Alys drew her second blade with her left hand and sliced it towards the one she'd just hit on the chin with the same fluid speed as Cullan had drawn and thrown his knife - her opponent's stagger made her swing short though. As the men hurriedly tried to draw their swords, Cullan and Alys cut into them, both easily ripping through their thick cloth vests. Alys' target folded up, bubbling, Cullan's merely staggered again. Cullan swung again, past a feeble parry, opening up a large red gash across his opponent's belly, then Alys did the same across the man's back. He just stood there, wide-eyed with his mouth opening and shutting. Cullan swung again, nearly taking the man's head off, and he collapsed. Alys turned and stabbed the other one through the heart. They paused only to wipe their blades on the dead men's clothes, and for Cullan to retrieve his knife, then they left as hurriedly as they dared.

They stopped to catch their breath a few streets away. "What do you reckon - pimps, or footpads with a contact?"

"Footpads, most likely. No rings."

"Where are we?" Alys asked.

"No idea," Cullan replied.

"You're lost?"

"I'm trying to keep us parallel to the main road, but I'm not entirely sure where that is right now."

"Are we north or south of it?"

"North - if we'd've crossed it, we'd've noticed - as would've about twenty armed men."

"Can you see either of the cathedrals?"

Cullan glanced at the skyline. "Not from here - this street's too narrow. Come on, we'll keep moving, and check every right turn for the Cathedral of Domar. That's the one with the spire, right?"

Alys nodded. Cullan gave a cursory glance round again, and moved off. More streets, more patrols avoided - the patrols became more regular as they went on. In frustration, Cullan picked the lock of a house and they both went in, closing the door after them.

"We must be getting near the main crossroads," he whispered. They hadn't moved from in front of the door - if anyone was home, they would have heard the door being opened and closed, and would now be listening intently for any sound of movement. In a few minutes, they would relax, and it would be safe to move about. In the meantime, they whispered to each other so quietly the sound barely carried to the other's ear.

"All these patrols are slowing us down," Alys agreed.

"We can probably afford to wait another day to get the robes, but I don't want to go back empty-handed."

"Why not? Cadell's just arrogant, he's not important."

"He'll rag me about it."

"Ignore him. If he tries anything, I'll kick him." Cullan grinned, a far more pleasant expression on his face than on Cadell's. "So, what now?"

"I think we wait until anyone who's here goes back to sleep, then we head up to the roof."

"And from there?"

"It can't be far to the Cathedrals. We head for Domar, keep on the roofs until we get to the main road, then find some way of getting across to Saint Maruk's."

"And if there isn't a way across?"

"Two options - we can climb down, run across and hope, or we can throw the line across and go hand-over-hand."

"I don't like either of those ideas."

"Well if we can't get across, we can come back to the Domar and see if they've got anything for us."

Alys nodded assent. "I'm amazed they've got the manpower for so many patrols. You'd think they'd mostly be on the walls."

"Mmm. The patrols were pretty heavy last time we were here, and I think they had as 'bout as many on the walls too."

"But, from what Kael told us, there's not that many troops to fill that sort of activity. They must be exhausted trying to keep it all up."

"That's good news for the Alliance, then. They'll be fighting a tired enemy when they storm the breach."

"But how are they managing it?"

Cullan shrugged. "Threats, bribes, blackmail, who knows? Maybe Kael doesn't know all he thinks he does?"

Alys shrugged. "Whatever. Something doesn't add up, though, and it's probably going to be big trouble for us when we find out what."

"Maybe. But until then, we do the job at hand."

"Right."

"Couple more minutes, then, and we can move."

"So, we're just going to stand like this for another two minutes?"

"Why not?" again, Cullan grinned.

"Because I can practically hear you thinking about how easy it would be to move your hand a few inches and feel my bum."

"And what's wrong with that?"

"We're not here to grope each other, we're here to sneak onto the roof."

"Okay. I'll grope you when we get back to the hideout," Cullan replied, stepping carefully backwards. Alys glared at him, but remained silent.

 
A couple of minutes later, Cullan felt that it was okay to move again. He motioned with his head and turned towards the stairs. He found them and carefully climbed them, Alys waiting at the bottom. When he was safely at the top, Alys very slowly followed him. They made their way along the landing very carefully, and utterly silently. They located the narrow, almost ladder-like stairs leading up to the attic, and once again climbed them separately. Near the top, Alys made a tread creak. They heard a movement from one of the rooms. Cullan reached his hand down and pulled her up. They stayed there, pressed against the wall for several minutes, until Cullan was sure whoever it was was no longer listening out for anything to hear again. He slowly made his way along the wall to the shuttered window, and opened it carefully, letting in almost no light at all. Alys crept over to him, her steps not as silent as his, but there was no sign anyone in bed noticed.

"Moon must have set," she whispered, "it's getting early."

Cullan nodded. He climbed onto the sill and looked out. He couldn't see the cathedral, so he knew he'd have to climb onto the roof of the house they were in as a first step. Fortunately, it wasn't too far from the small window to the peak of the roof. He scrambled up and lay flat on the slates, to give Alys a hand. She climbed out carefully and walked her hands up the wall above the window. She found Cullan's arm, and a few seconds later, she was on the roof. They both stood, and Cullan scanned the skyline.

"Over there," he said, pointing to where a large tower of white stone rose a hundred yards or so away. The much darker slate spire of the Cathedral of Domar was maybe twenty yards to their right. There was a continuous row of roofs, a few higher, most lower, between them and their destination, Saint Maruk's Cathedral, with only two breaks, both for major roads.

"What are we going to do about those roads?"

"We'll cross those bridges when we get to them," Cullan replied. "Come on," and he moved off.

It took them five minutes to cross the first seventy-five yards to the first road. It was only eight feet wide, and the gable of the roof they were on faced the slope of the house on the opposite side. "Can you jump that?" asked Alys.

"Should be able to. You?"

Alys nodded. "Run up across the roof."

"You first then." Cullan flattened himself on the slates and allowed himself to slide down to the gutter. Alys picked her way back to the far end of the roof they were on. She turned, breathed deeply a couple of times, took a couple of steps, and broke into a run. She launched herself from the edge, and landed cleanly on the far side. She scrambled to the peak of the roof and lay flat. There was no alarm from anywhere. Cullan climbed his was back to the peak of the roof and clambered to his feet. He made his way back to the far end, turned, and began running. He pushed off from the edge of the roof and landed not quite as cleanly as Alys, but managed to get to the peak with only a little scrabbling, and no alarm. He took a minute to get his breath back, then got to his feet and moved off along the roof to the right, where a large house at right-angles allowed them to climb onto the gable roof closest to their target. The road separating this roof and the Cathedral, however, was nearly fifteen feet wide.

"Now what?" asked Alys.

Cullan looked down. The street was practically swarming with patrols. Not three yards to their right, the road turned into a square for a six-way crossroads, all of them main roads. "The road's out of the question," he replied. He looked at the Cathedral opposite. It didn't take him long to spot a useful-looking ledge with a handy gargoyle above it. "Okay. Rope. We can swing across."

"Where to?"

"If I can catch that gargoyle with the grapnel, we should be able to land on the ledge safely. We'll go together, less chance of being spotted."

"Will the rope take both our weight?"

"Should do. We don't weight all that much, each."

"What about doubling the rope?"

Cullan looked at the Cathedral again, judging distance. "I don't think there's enough rope."

"Alright. Get everything out of your pouch that you'll need over there, and leave the pouch here." She began removing her own pouch.

"How will we get our stuff back? We can't come back this way, there's nowhere to get a swing to."

Alys hesitated. "Alright. We'll have to be quick, though."

Cullan nodded and began paying out the rope. He took a few swings to get the heft, spun it up, and threw it. The grapnel bounced off the gargoyle with a nasty chink! Cullan hauled in the rope as quick as possible and they ducked into the cover of the roof's peak. There didn't seem to be any reaction from the patrols below. Cullan stood up slowly, and tried again. This time, it caught. He rolled up the spare rope so it wouldn't trail and handed it to Alys. She took it, then put her arms round Cullan. "Ready?" he asked.

"Go," she replied. They pushed off together, and immediately Cullan felt the rope creak. They landed without problems on the ledge, though, and Alys let go immediately. She peered over the edge to see if their swing had been noticed. Three soldiers in a patrol seemed to be having an argument with their sergeant, and pointing at the Cathedral. "Cullan, the rope," she hissed.

Cullan was flattened against the wall, not moving. "I can't shin up ten feet of rope, grab a gargoyle, unhook the rope and get back down while they're watching, we'll be spotted for sure."

Alys risked peering over the edge again. There seemed to be some consensus among the patrol. They marched straight to the Cathedral doors. "They're coming," she whispered.

"But are they looking?" asked Cullan.

"No," she replied.

Cullan climbed the rope, grabbed hold of the gargoyle's knee, gave the rope a flick, dislodging the grapnel, hooked it over his neck, and edged himself down the wall, dropping the last couple of feet to the ledge. He crouched as he hurriedly coiled the rope and slung it over his shoulder, then beckoned Alys to follow him along the ledge, round the corner of the tower. They hadn't quite got round the corner when they heard voices below them. Stopping just round the corner to listen, Cullan heard the patrol sergeant telling someone from inside the Cathedral that he thought he'd seen someone, and the someone telling the sergeant to, "sod off flatfoot, we'll take care of it." Cullan breathed a sigh of relief, and began looking for a way in.

There was a row of unshuttered windows on the western side of the Cathedral's tower, that looked towards the Tower that dominated the city skyline. Cullan listened at them before beckoning Alys through. They opened onto a wide balcony that looked out over the crossing, with a single solid door to the left leading to something over the choir and sanctuary. The nave and transepts were being watched by two of the Temple Guards, and another was in the choir. The Cathedral's tower spanned almost the entire width of the transepts, but the opposite wall did not have a balcony, and the windows were stained glass. There were stairs climbing the opposite side of the tower, one flight to either side, leading up to a gallery much closer to the top. There was a member of the Temple Guard on each flight, wearily slogging their way up to see if anyone was indeed clambering around the outside of the building. Cullan and Alys hurriedly made for the door. One of the Guards on the stairs heard something and looked over but Alys noticed and hauled Cullan to the floor. A minute later, they both crawled on their bellies the last few yards to the door.

"That was close," Cullan whispered, "thanks."

"What's this door?" Alys asked.

"Must be the bishop's apartments. I'll go in, see if I can find anything. Can you handle the guards?"

"Only if I can drop all seven before they sound an alarm," she replied.

"See what you can do about the ones on the stairs at least," he told her as he fished in his pouch for his lockpicks. He pulled them out and went to work as Alys unshouldered her bow and took it from its case. It took him about half a minute to unlock the door, by which time, Alys had taken aim. She loosed the arrow just as Cullan opened the door. There was a distant thud-flump as the Guard slumped onto the stairs. Alys prepared another arrow - she only had until the other guard turned onto the next section of stairs and noticed his counterpart was no longer upright. Her second shot clattered harmlessly into the wall five yards below her target. The man spun round and looked for the source of the noise, but failed to spot anything. No-one else appeared to notice anything, either. She waited until he made the turn and would spot his downed colleague before firing again. The arrow bounced off the wall a yard in front of him.

"There's someone in here!" the Temple Guard called. "They're shooting at me!"

Alys swore and dived through the door, closing it behind her. She picked herself up, put her bow back, drew her sword, and went to find Cullan.

Cullan was trying to find stairs down. The bishop wouldn't have ordinary priests' or monks' robes. But if he lived on the premises, then it was likely he had servants, or at least subservients, also living on the premises, and they would have ordinary robes he could steal. By his reckoning, he had almost made it round to the other side of the choir before he found a narrow flight of stairs down, hidden behind a heavy curtain. He cautiously made his way down. The flickering sconces of the upper level were blocked completely by the curtain, and there didn't appear to be more than a candle or two at the bottom. He emerged into a long stone corridor, lit by a giant nightlight at each end, mostly burned down by now. By his reading of it, it was just past five in the morning. Still plenty of darkness left, but in an hour or so, people would be waking up, troops would be changing shift, and the streets would start to crawl with people.

The stairs had taken him down underground. There probably wasn't much space between this underground habitat for the convenience of the bishop, the Cathedral's crypt, and any sewers that happened to be near - the main sewer from the north gate certainly couldn't be far away. There was an unlit branch of the tunnel heading right, so Cullan took the lit one on the left. There were no doors off it, but at the end it made a u-turn to the left, and there were a few doors off this corridor. Before he went down it, he heard a noise on the stairs. He returned his sword to its' sheath and drew his throwing knife, and prepared himself to throw at any unfriendly face that appeared at the foot of the stairs.

Alys appeared at the bottom of the stairs, ten yards away. Cullan was so tense that he threw anyway. The long slim blade hurtled down the corridor and penetrated Alys' armour at the same time as Cullan's warning shout filled the air.

"NNNnnnnnngggggggggg! Shit Cullan!"

He was already running forward. "Shit! Sorry, Alys, I thought you were a guard!"

"They have ram's-skull helmets, Cullan!" she snarled, pulling the knife out. "And mail armour!" She uncorked her water bottle and poured some water over the wound as Cullan tore the sleeve of his shirt for a bandage.

"I'm sorry, it's this dim light, and I'm on edge!" He stuffed the bandage into the slit to stem the bloodflow and began tearing another one.

"Ahhh! Fuck fuck fuckitty fuck, Cullan! Why didn't you just wait round the corner with your sword ready?"

"I told you, I'm on edge! What about the real guards?"

"One down, the others know I'm here but not where. Let's just get the stuff we came for and get out of here. Please tell me you have it already?"

"These are servants' quarters, robes'll be down here somewhere."

"Well go and find them, then - I'll wait here, and I'll try not to kill you when you get back!"

"Alright, I'm sorry! Going now!"

Cullan retrieved his knife and ran back up the passage, only pausing to clean the blade when he was round the corner. He drew his sword and tried the first door. It opened onto a kitchen. He sniffed the air, located the source of the appetising whiff he'd caught, and scooped most of the spice rack into his pouch before leaving. The next door was a pantry, with plenty of food stored. The next door was the laundry. A washerwoman was sleeping on a pallet in a corner - she woke up when the door opened, and drew breath to scream. Cullan was across the room in a flash, his left hand clamped over her mouth, his sword hovering somewhere out of sight of both of them. "Please don't scream," he said, "I'm not going to hurt you. I'm just here for some robes. I'll take my hand away if you promise not to scream." The woman nodded. Cullan pulled his hand away.

"What do you want robes for, sir? she asked timidly.

"I want to make the bishop look bad," he replied.

"Clean ones are in that cupboard, sir," she said, indicating a large cupboard next to the mangle.

"Thank you." Cullan stood up. He crossed to the cupboard and opened it, to see it full of robes - about half plain grey ones, the others clearly the bishop's. He pulled out six of the plain ones. "Tell me - the unlit passage round the corner, where does it lead?"

"The crypt, sir."

"And I can get into the main cathedral through there?"

"Yes, sir. Just follow the wall, you'll come out near the main door."

"Thank you." He hoicked the robes under his left arm. "I think I should tell you, that if you've lied to me about the crypt, I'll come back and kill you."

"Honest, sir," she whimpered, "I'm telling the truth!"

Cullan held her gaze for a long moment, then smiled and nodded. "Well then. I won't be seeing you," he said, and backed out of the door, closing it behind him. He ran back down the passage, turned the corner carefully, and ran to Alys, who at least was standing now.

"You got them? Great! Now, how do we get out of here?"

"Through the crypt," Cullan replied, as he started handing over robes for Alys to carry.

"The crypt?"

"Yes, down that unlit passage. Through the crypt, into the nave by the main door, then home."

"And how do you plan on getting there?"

"Are you up to running for half a mile?"

"I think so. But what about the guards, and the patrols?"

"See those nightlights? They say it's about five-fifteen, maybe five-thirty in the morning. That's nearly knock-off time, any patrols still around will be half-asleep and just aching to get back to barracks."

"So what about the Temple Guards? They're on alert now."

"We can hack them down on the way out, there'll only be a couple guarding the main door."

"And what do we do for light?"

Cullan strode to the nearer candle and heaved it off the cast-iron stand. "And if push comes to shove, I can use it clobber someone."

"Right." Alys drew her sword again. "After you."

They headed down the unlit passage. After about ten yards, it made a sharp turn to the left, and down a short flight of steps cut into stone. It got noticeably colder as they descended. At the bottom was an iron gate, beyond which was the huge expanse of the crypt. Cullan placed the candle carefully on the ground, and went to work with his lockpicks. He worked for nearly a minute before swearing at the lock and trying again. Almost another minute later, the lock opened, and the gate swung open. They went through, and Cullan took the trouble to lock it after them before picking up the candle and carrying on, along the left-hand wall. It took them a couple of minutes to traverse the crypt and come to the bottom of a set of well-maintained wide steps, that turned right after the first three. Cullan put the candle down and drew his sword. "Ready?" he asked quietly.

"Let's go," Alys whispered back. She led the way up the stairs, treading quietly, sword ready. About halfway up, they heard voices at the top.

"Did you hear something?"

"Nah. Watch the nave."

They carried on climbing quietly. The stairs turned again a few steps from the top. Cullan and Alys looked each other in the eye for a second, nodded to each other, then burst from cover, turned left and headed for the two surprised Temple Guards just in front of the door. Alys went for the nearer one, who raised his shield too late, and her swing went through his armour at stomach height. As she danced past, his riposte missed completely. The one on the far side of the door just stood there wide-eyed as Cullan charged him, and barely moved when the point of his sword stabbed towards his heart. He was skewered, and just bubbled as he staggered backwards - Cullan's second stab attempt fell short. Alys pivoted on one foot and neatly beheaded her opponent, before turning to Cullan's and trying again. Her blow fell a little low, though, and the spurt of blood was across his shoulders rather than his neck. It had the desired effect of getting him off his feet, though, and the two intruders wasted no time in heaving the bar off the door, shouldering it open, and running like mad for a hundred yards. They stopped roughly parallel with the Cathedral of Domar to catch their breath.

"You okay?" panted Alys.

Cullan nodded vigorously. "You?"

"I'm fine," she replied. "But I think a patrol may have spotted us."

"We can't do too much about it right now," Cullan gasped. "I know where we are, I know the way back. Let's get our breath back, and we can be home in five minutes if we're quick, even if we're dodging through alleyways."

They waited another minute, then moved off at a jog, Cullan leading, towards their hideout. They mostly followed a line parallel to the main road, about twenty yards to their left, but they took a few side-alleys, zig-zagged their route, and eventually got back to the house three minutes later.

Kenyon was at the window, keeping watch. "They're coming," he told the others, "and they're in a hurry!"

Cadell was on his feet and at his pack instantly. "Out of the way," he told Kenyon. He had his own rope and grapnel line, which he hooked onto the sill and let down.

"Why didn't you tell us you had that?" Kenyon demanded.

"It didn't seem necessary before."

Cullan and Alys came to a halt at the bottom of the rope. Alys was first up, gasping like landed fish. "Morgan," she managed, "I need a hand." Her wound was bleeding again. Morgan helped the older woman to a space to lie down, then placed her hand on the wound and closed her eyes.

Cullan came through the window, and Cadell quickly pulled up the rope. "Could you have a look at my ankle when you've finished with her, please Morgan?" he asked, sitting down next to Alys.

"Cullan, what happened?" Kenyon.

"Long story," Cullan began.

"No it isn't," Alys interrupted. "Tell them, or I will."

"Alright! I got a little jumpy and accidentally threw my knife at her," he admitted.

Morgan looked around her. "Not three days ago, I got told off for attacking you!"

"On purpose," Cullan reminded her, "I ballsed up. Everyone ballses up occasionally. Like you did last year in that forest, after the fight."

"What? But ... that was a spell that went wrong."

"Yes. And what went wrong for me was a valid defensive tactic. Both hurt a friend. Now are you going to see to my ankle or not?"

Morgan snarled, but had a look at it anyway.

"So, what's the situation with our whoremongering deserter captain?" asked Alys.

"He and the whore left not long after you did," Cadell answered. "I'd guess the whole unit will be back in about half an hour. Did you get what you went for?"

Cullan began pulling the robes out of his overstuffed pouch. "Yep. Plus we got some spices from the bishop's kitchen, so we can trade them if necessary."

Alys hauled out the robes in her pouch as well. "Five new corpses in the city - two footpads, three Temple Guards. At least two of them are headless."

"You will have to remove your swords," Cadell said.

"Well, um, yeah," Alys replied. "They don't exactly fit under a priest's robe!"

"You misunderstand. Headless corpses are unusual, so are your swords. Someone will connect the two. You will not be able to wear your swords in this city, whether you are disguised or not."

"Maybe I should hide my axe, as well?" Kenyon asked, sarcastically. "That can easily behead someone."

"It is a fairly noticeable weapon," Cadell replied. "It might be best."

Cullan stood up. "Cadell, this has gone far enough. For the purposes of this mission, you are muscle, your job is to keep us safe in the Tower. Sneaking around, getting in to places, killing people who get in the way - that's what we do. You are nothing more than additional security for when we have four hundred people coming after us. So shut your trap, and do as you're told!"

Cadell bristled. "I am ordered to get you into the Tower undetected and prevent harm from coming to you whilst there. Those unorthodox weapons you have will only increase the difficulty of my job if you insist on carrying them!"

"And who gave you those orders?"

"General Kael."

Cullan looked round theatrically. "Oh, look, he's not here! I am though, and I'm in charge, and I'm telling you now to button it!"

"And what's not to say that you're to put yourselves under my command for this mission?"

"Maybe the fact that we're not part of the military, and neither, really, are you."

"By hiring yourselves to King Dashell for the campaign, you are part of the military!"

"Guess what? We're not being paid by Dashell, we've got to find our own pay, that means we're not military."

"So what if I decide, as a Lone Wolf Agent of the Galorndan army, I should take command of you civilians for your own good?"

"Try it and see what happens," Cullan growled.

"Fine! As of now, you are all under my direct command!"

"Kenyon - hit him!" Cullan ordered.

"Yes, sir!" Kenyon grinned, and swung at Cadell, who managed to raise his arm and deflect the blow, then jabbed his fist forward at Kenyon, who was ready for it and turned it aside just as Cadell had turned his own blow. Kenyon swung again, again Cadell turned it and returned the favour, but his own swing came nowhere near Kenyon, who swung again and this time connected. It sounded like a steak hammer hitting a particularly stubborn piece of meat, and it threw Cadell back a yard, which co-incidentally was within Cullan's reach. He reached out and grabbed Cadell around the neck, and held him in a choke-hold.

"You see?" Cullan asked. "He did what I said. As will everyone else here over you. When I let go, you will apologise for your behaviour, or I'll have Kenyon knock you out, and we'll leave you for the soldiers to find while we move to a nice disused inn we passed tonight. Do you understand?"

"Yes," Cadell spat after a few seconds.

"Good," Cullan said. He released his grip. Cadell squirmed out of reach of both of them, and was about to do something stupid when he noticed that Alys had nocked an arrow and it was pointing straight at him. He forced himself to relax.

"I am sorry for my comments," he said. "I will not speak out of turn again. I will follow your orders."

"Good," said Cullan. "We know what we're doing, we know how best to work to each other's strengths. Once we get inside the Tower, you can have free reign. Until then, let us do our job."

"Understood."

"Right. Now, I don't know about anyone else, but I need some sleep. Someone wake me at noon." Cullan lay back down where he'd got up from a few moments before, pulled a blanket over himself, and went to sleep.


 

Blackmail for Beginners

Cullan glared at her, then realised she couldn't see it under his cowl. Then he decided not to waste his breath explaining one of the finer points of consistent disguise, and simply beckoned her after him. They arrived at the park not long after, halfway along the top edge of the U, and Cullan led the way straight across the central path. Once on the south side of the park, Cullan turned right, then disappeared into one of the narrow streets that were on the curved south-western edge of the park. A few twists and turns later, and Cullan found what he was looking for.

"A dressmaker's?" asked Morgan.

"Mmm," Cullan answered, "I just hope this is right one. Besides, Alys could probably use a fitting."

"What? Why?"

"I'm starting to get the beginnings of a plan," replied Cullan mysteriously. "Now, you go round the back and check things out, I'll go in and ask a few probing questions."

"What am I looking for?"

"Anything that catches your eye. I'll meet you here in three minutes."

"Alright." Morgan hurried off. Cullan adjusted the hang of his robe, then went into the shop.

"Good afternoon, wel- oh. I'm sorry, Father, we don't cater for the clergy."

"That's alright, I'm not here to purchase anything," Cullan replied, gliding past the simpering woman and stopping by the counter in the corner.

"Then I'm afraid I must ask you to leave," the woman tried.

"All in good time," Cullan said, "I have some questions to ask."

"The confidentiality of our clients is assured," she said frostily, "discretion is part of the service."

"Who are your clientele?" Cullan asked. "In general, I mean?"

"High-class ladies of the city."

"I see. And yet you are in one of the lower-rent business districts, where high-class ladies seldom come."

"We have a very exclusive client list!"

"I'm sure you have. And a large one too."

The woman smiled condescendingly. "An exclusive list is, by definition, small," she said with a small laugh.

"Not so - exclusive merely means you do not add anyone new unless they meet certain criteria. If you've been established a long time, or your criteria apply to a lot of people ..." Cullan left the sentence hanging. The woman was suddenly wary.

"And just what do you mean by that, Father?" she asked.

"The windows are curiously dark from outside, and there is nothing on display in them. Inside, there is very little in the way of furnishings that a true high-class lady would expect - no chaise, no little tables, no upholstery, and so on. There is a bell-pull hidden under this counter, a security precaution that not many high-society ladies make a necessity. The wares you do have on display are not typical of society belles or dames, either - they are more suitable for fallen women."

"And what is your point, Father?" she asked, this time with a whole winter-load of frost.

"I just wanted to check that I had an opportunity for business here as well," said Cullan. He stepped forward to leave. "Don't worry, I'll be discreet, there'll be no need to call for your watchdog." He opened the door, and stopped. "My name," he said, "is Father Seneca. Do not forget it." He stepped smartly out and closed the door, then went to meet Morgan. She came sneaking out of an alley less then a minute later. "Well?" he asked.

"I don't know what you were expecting me to find," she began, "but what I found would only be called rags if they weren't made of silk - and there was so much lace trimming, it must tickle something rotten!"

"As I suspected!" Cullan grinned. "Come on, let's get back."

"As what you suspected?"

"This place outfits whores, mainly."

"And you want Alys to have a fitting here? She'll kill you!"

"Probably. But we need a way to get the house emptied, and the easiest way to do that, is to start a riot among the grunts."

"And how will Alys being dressed like a tart help with that?"

"The captain won't tell his men he's nipping off for a shag - they'll guess, of course, but they won't know. And they'll be stuck on duty all night, and they're in billet all day, so they'll be getting a mite frustrated. So what do you think will happen when the captain's whore turns up with some friends at the front door, half an hour before they're due to go on duty?"

"They won't be happy."

"Exactly."

"So, why do we need the house empty?"

"So we can steal some uniforms without anyone noticing."