The ground rushed to meet Jol as he collided with the white robed youth. Tangling together, the two fell to the uneven paving stones and filth of the street. Jol, disentangling himself first, leapt up, brushing away the clinging detritus with a scraped hand.
“Watch where you’re goin’ ya dung mouth!” Jol yelled as he kicked the youth in the stomach. Breath knocked out of him, the boy rolled onto his back, looking up at Jol with eyes red-rimmed by panic.
“They’re burning it! They’re burning the tower!” he gasped. Examining him more closely, Jol noticed the tell-tale signs that marked the lad out as a devotee of the Cailleach – the belt woven in imitation gold, the brooch in a stylised form of a bird at the shoulder – which explained his distress. Looking to the South West, Jol could see a faint glow, obstructed by roofs across the street, and, if he concentrated, he could make out a scent of woodsmoke above the ever-present stink of fish in this quarter.
“No concern of mine, lad,” Jol remarked.
“An that’s fer dumpin’ me in the muck!” he said as he kicked the prone acolyte in the mouth, a satisfying crunch of breaking teeth felt through the leather of his boot. Leaving the moaning youth behind him, Jol continued his walk down the street, looking about in the broadening gloom. Few people out of doors, he noticed, but that was hardly unexpected in a city so recently succumb to siege.
Passing a row of unremarkable warehouse fronts, Jol came to another by-way, this one somewhat larger than the previous, but still canopied by the leaning tops of the surrounding buildings, wooden frames obscuring the sky periodically as they pushed against one another. Looking into the darkness, he spotted his goal – a crudely wrought sign hanging below an iron lantern, depicting a well-endowed woman with the tail of a seal. Abruptly, the door flew open, and a thin, bedraggled man was bodily tossed through the portal, accompanied by a shouted “An’ stay oot!” The man, landing heavily on the sparsely paved road, rose to his hands and knees, whereupon he promptly, noisily, emptied his stomach. Jol moved past the drunk, as he sputtered and threw up once more.
Entering the tavern, Jol was greeted by a moist heat and a smell of stale sweat that replaced the damp cold and stink of brine outside. The entrance opened up onto a wide room, lit by several more of the blocky lanterns akin to the one seen outside, as well as a hearth along the far wall. A man behind the bar to the left of the door looked up from the tankard he cleaned, while a tough in a dark cloak eyed Jol from the darkness of the corner to the right. There were several more people in the room, all men, mostly at the few tables scattered about, mulling over cups of ale.
Looking about, Jol found the man he was looking for, and started across the room, followed by the eyes of the tough. As he was seated, looking across at the dour man occupying the other side of the table, the barman sidled up.
“What’ll it be?”
“Oh, have ya anything, say, from out of port? A bit of summer wine, or perhaps Northern mead?”
The bar man gave Jol a withering look, crossing his arms across a burly chest. “You’ll be lucky to get the usual, ye sneak thief, and be ‘appy you kin find any grog ‘tall, city the way it is now! If I’d any sense, I’d be shut up like all t’other stablishments!”
Jol favoured the bar man with a more direct look, noticing the leather apron he wore, coloured with dark stains of dubious origin, the balding hair and the cauliflowered ears.
“But then, dear Grady, where would all these fine, noble sons of Forc Tuile come to celebrate?” The man across from Jol scowled, and there were heard a few mutters around the room. “Furthermore, I hear that there is a ship in from continent, and, so rumour has it, it’s got quite the foreign cargo.”
“Anyone sailing here, now, be a fool. I tell ya, Jol, ya try an old man’s patience,” responded Grady gruffly. “One day, ye’ll try tha wrong body.”
“Yer finest grog then, Grady, and another fer ma friend here,” Jol said, nodding his head to the man across, and placing two copper coins on the scarred table. Silently, the man picked up one of the coins and bit it, revealing a row of mostly missing teeth.
“I may be a thief, but I know better than ta piss where I drink!” said Jol in mock alarm. Grady merely grunted and swept the second coin into his burly hand, sauntering back to his bar.
“You’d do well not ta be drawin’ attention to yerself alike that, lad,” Jol’s companion said, furtively looking about the room. “There be dark days ahead fer us Tuilans, I guarantee ye that.”
“Days, old man?” Jol snidely responded, though he did match his voice to the other’s near-whisper. “I’m not concerned about days, but about hours! The city is still in chaos – just on my way here I saw the King’s troops burning the tower of those foolish crone worshippers! I say, we grab what we can now, and get out of the city before these ‘dark days’ of yours arrive!”
Alarm in his eyes, the man across the table was about to respond when Grady arrived with the two pints of rum and small beer mix. “This’ll likely be the last time we see any rum a’comin in from aways, so you best enjoy, ye scoundrels,” said Grady, morosely.
After Grady was safely out of earshot, Jol went on – “I’m tellin’ ye, Alban, there’s somethin worthwhile on that ship. Why else bring ‘er inta port while the city be still burnin’?”
“Even if that be the case, lad, it’s no sense runnin’ around now, place as it is crawlin’ with soldiers still. An’ you musta heard what they’ve been sayin – ‘Any man, woman, or child caught thievin’ by the Jarls ‘ll feel the King’s justice.’ Now’s not the time for it.”
“More like his grace the King doesn’t want the competition, says I,” Jol responded with a smirk. “Asides, you’ve heard the rumours, well as I ‘ave. Not long for the shippin’ of ol’ Forc Tuile now. King’s set ‘is sights on a new port for ‘iself, closer to the mountain-mouth. Me brother’s aready headed down there, ta seek his fortune. If we’re ta seek any hereabouts, we’d best do it now!”
“Don’t be so quick with yer tongue, lad. There’s plenty a-man here in the Selky’s Cunny‘d turn ye in to them Jarls, right quick,” Alban cautioned, rubbing his thin moustache. “And we’ll see about this new port o ‘yorn. It’ll take more than the dictates o’ some conquerin’ King ta raise up a city as grande as Tuile, especially out o’ the marsh they got down Dheas Bhá way.”
“Bah, this lot don’t frighten me. ‘Sides, most are too deep inta their cups ta even stand,” said Jol, scanning the room to see if anyone looked to be listening. “I picked this place a-purpose, knowin’ it’d be filled with a bunch a drunken net rats.”
“Be’t as it may,” said Alban, “I’m not for stirrin’ up more trouble than comes to me natural-like. This time, lad, you’ll have to count me out.”
Offering Alban a long-suffering look, Jol quaffed his drink quickly, saying as he stood “Likely, ye’d just slow me down now, old man.”
“If ever ye get somethin’ a bit better than this, Grady, ye be sure ta let me know!” Jol said as he strode to the door. Grady, in turn, hocked and spat at the ground before Jol’s feet. Alban, watching Jol as he left the tavern, breathed a heavy sigh.
“Lad’s going ta run himself inta trouble, one of these days. S’pose it can’t be -hic- helped.” Louder: “ Another, if ya don’t mind, Grady.”
– : –
Jol climbed over the ship’s gunwale deftly, landing silently. He quickly scanned the shadowy deck. “Just like I was tellin’ Alban,” he thought to himself, “All the guards’re stationed on the dock. Likely lookin’ out for them maraudin’ soldiers.” Looking across the harbour, Jol was unable to see the other side of the city through the fog, some three and a half hundred yards distant. Turning towards the outer bay, he could barely make out the lit windows of the Keep on the breakwater. Little good that Keep did for the city, with Tuile’s army routed before the Sunset Gates. Occupied now by the enemy’s command, the flickering, muzzy lights seemed to have a mournful cast to them. Despite their twinkling sadness, Jol felt a silent excitement. The night’s fog only helped him here; less likely he’d be spotted from shore. Returning his gaze to the ship, he examined the deck more closely. A large cog, nearly 80 feet in length, it looked fit for the often-rough seas between Cothrom an Tír and the mainland. To Jol’s left, unusual for a ship of this build, was a cabin in the aft castle.
“Luck’s not failed me before,” said Jol softly to himself. He stalked across the deck towards the door, creaking boards muffled in the damp air. Working on a hunch, he forewent exploring the hold, suspecting his prize would be in this unusual cabin. There was a lantern hanging above the door, showing that there was no lock, at least on the outside. A soft glow fuzzed through a window off to the right, warning of a possible occupant. A quick peek through the foggy glazing showed nothing.
Jol tried the door, which, to his apparent luck, was unbarred from the inside. With a slight effort, he was able to shift it open, though it scraped damply along the swollen decking. Peering inside, he could see the inner cabin with difficulty, thanks to a lantern burning fitfully along the far wall.
“Guess there be no-one ‘ome,” Jol said, thinking that anyone in the cabin would have been alerted by the sound of the scraping door.
Moving inside, he quickly spotted a filigreed chest sitting on a desk below the lantern, covered in delicate golden tracery the like of which he’d not seen before. The rest of the cabin was blanketed in shadow, but he suspected that, adorned as the chest was, it was likely the most valuable cargo on the ship. Peering more closely at it, he saw that the lid was sealed around its edges by some sort of gum. He flipped the latch on the front and lifted the lid – the gum, which seemed to be a sort of wax, gave in to the pressure.
“Phwah!” cried Jol, recoiling from the smell of bad eggs that erupted from the chest. “If this be some sort of joke…!” Inspecting the innards of the box more closely, he saw that the contents were wrapped in a sort of sheer fabric. Folding it back, he saw a roll of parchment, sitting atop a pile of fine black powder that filled the rest of the space.
He threw the parchment aside. “I’ve ‘eard tell that lordlings ‘ll sometimes carry their jewels in a box of fine black sa – urk!” Jol’s self-directed musings were cut short as the twined cord bit into his throat, the strong hands holding it firm against his death throes. His hands, immersed in the powder, threw clouds of it into the air.
“No, heathen,” a deep voice intoned, “that ‘black sand’ is the jewel!”