Gavyn stumbled in the press of the crowd, the rough fabric’d bodies catching at his exposed skin, the stink of humanity thick on a sultry afternoon. Swept off his feet, he was carried in the general direction of the crowd – down the street, towards the market place. As a heavy-set smith pushed ahead, Gavyn leapt into the wake he left, and pushed his way to the edge of the crush.
“Repent!” a cry rang out, a lone figure standing on a toppled statue, evidently the source. Gavyn ducked into the otherwise-empty square, eager for respite from the surge. “Repent, you philanderers! You heathen!” The man, for no woman could have such a commanding baritone, was cloaked and hooded in black, despite the heat of the mid-summer day.
“Eh, what’s ‘e on about?” said someone off to Gavyn’s left. More people detached from the throng and joined Gavyn in the square, always eager for a bit of street theatre when they could get it.
“Philanderers, he says, Colm! Why, wasn’t it just the other day Therise caught you over at -” a punch from, at least whom Gavyn suspected was the addressed, cut short the revelation of the location, as the first man leapt on to the second and the two fell back into the crowd. The figure on the statue looked on impassively, body expression exuding disdain.
“Aye, philanderers, I name you!” he said, looking out over the gathering crowd. “But I speak not of your petty misdeeds and dalliances. Nay, I speak of a greater crime! You have turned away your God, your Great Creator, and made filthy matrimony with these ‘New Gods,’ these imported, conquerors’ idols! Curs, all of you!” he said, with a striking motion of his arm, as if he sought to cut down the lot of them. “Aye, fire! Fire and brimstone await you! And not just in the afterlife, for the Mighty Flame, The Crafter of Worlds, Titanic Hegebellius walks this world! He will have his day, and He will take back what is His! Hearken to me, you of Cothrom an Tir, you of this Fallen Land!”
With that, a cascade of “Boo!” and “Sod off!” erupted from the crowd, accompanied by an assortment of vegetables. Under the withering hail, the black-robed figure, now stained and befouled, retreated to an exit in the far corner of the square, turning back to the crowd in order to shake a fist in final show of resistance. With his departure, the tenor of the crowd lightened, as if the entire episode had been planned from the start. Gavyn, looking around at those who had so auspiciously supplied the majority of the rotten produce, thought this might not be so far-fetched. Scene finished, the crowd began to disperse, flowing back towards the general stream towards the market place.
“As if it’s not bad enough that we’ve got the Hervarar sittin’ on our necks, now we’ve got some mad-cap black crows kickin’ up a fuss! Jus’ the other day I saw another one of ’em harpin’ on about ‘is Great Fiery Flatulence or what ‘ave you, over in Iron Quarter!”
“Las’ thing we need is even more o’ these Strange and Fantastical Gods, says I!”
“I dunno, Rafe, me ma went and prayed at the Hervaren temple of the Mother, and her rheumatism cleared up the next day – you know how much it ails her.”
“Ahh, get yerself down Dheas way, yea damn turn-coat! No self-respectin’ Tuilean’d be caught at one o’ them Temples!”
“Says you! Me ma had been prayin’ to the Cailleach since the Conquerin’, and the firs’ time she goes to the Mother, a miracle! Hervarar’re not so bad, says I…”
As Gavyn pulled apart from the crowd, heading on down a less-congested avenue, the hubbub died down, despite the odd muffled curse or shout. Away from the larger street, the buildings grew shabbier, the cobbles loose or missing. Sunlight was harder to come by as the street narrowed and buildings rose on their crooked ascent. A slight decline made itself known, as the tunnel curved it’s way down to the lower portions of the city.
“Oy, whatchu got there, boy?” a voice from a darkened corner broke the stillness. “Anything worthwhile for ol’ Toam?”
“I know you, Toam. You’re nothing but a skulk and a ne’er-do-well, and I’m not afraid of you,” said Gavyn.
“With that bad arm o’yourn, it’s not your fear I was countin’ on.”
With that, Toam lunged forward.
The two tangled together and fell to the ground, the parcel clutched under Gavyn’s good arm tumbling to the ground and the vials of ink it contained smashing on the stone. Toam made a grab for the purse newly revealed, and snatched it away from the prone youth.
“Nothing by copper!” he said with disgust, pawing inside.
“’course, whadya think you’d find on me?!” Gavyn’s shouted at him.
“Not even worth the trouble,” said Toam wistfully, as he grabbed Gavyn by the shoulders, and, with a wrench, smashed his head back into the cobbles. As he pulled the now-inert body back for another jerk, he felt hands grasp his vest from behind, and lift him bodily from the ground.
Letting go of the youth, he fumbled in the semi-darkness to get a hold of the vice-like grip on his jerkin. Before he could twist himself, Toam was thrown face-first against the wall of the building across the alley, pain erupting in his mouth as several teeth broke on the rough brick. As he brought a dirty hand to his mouth to hold his damaged teeth, he was spun about, and a fist crashed into his nose. Doubled over in pain, he received a kick to the stomach that knocked the breath from his lungs. Laid out on the ground, a blow to the head sent him into a waiting, velvety darkness.
“Ya alrigh’ there, Gavyn?” the strapping, if short, youth said as he dropped the paving stone.
“Aye. Toam never did ‘ave much girth,” Gavyn said, sitting up and rubbing the back of his head. “Strength enough, though, ta finish me off had you not arrived when you did, Gus. Thank ‘e.”
“Pay it no mind, I’m more worried ’bout the hiding we’ll get if mess’r Brice ‘as lost all ‘is ink here. Did it all break?”
“Nah, seems like there’s a few bottles left intact. Let’s hurry on. No doubt we’ll be in trouble enough as is,” responded Gavyn, as he gathered up the few containers of ink not smashed. Rubbing his head again, he looked over at the prone figure of Toam in the corner. Making sure that he had all
the salvageable bottles gathered in his bag and the few copper groats that had spilled from his purse, he strode resolutely over to Toam and stomped on his face.
“Ah, c’mon, ‘e’s had enough” Gus said.
“Easy fer you to say! You already got to give ‘im a thrashing!”
“Ha! Well, true enough indeed!”
“Off we go then,” said Gavyn. As the two started off down the alley, he quickly dashed back, and kicked the older man in the gut, just for good measure.
Emerging from the darkness of the by-way, the two youths found themselves in the familiar streets, squares and alleys of the dock-quarters. Alongside familiar ground came the familiar scents – clean sea breeze and salty, nearly-off fish; sweet, tarred timber and urine-sharp streets. Decay trammelled into the cobbles by the heavy tread of industry, or as much as remained to the beleaguered city. A softly simmering pot of opposites, all the vivacity of humanity on display.
Gavyn gingerly patted the matted blood on the back of his head, probing the still-throbbing skull for the extent of the damage. No pieces missing, but still stinging with movement. Perhaps he would be able to skip the chirurgeon, this time.
A ball bounced by, followed by grubby children chasing after it. One of them, the tallest, twisted quickly and knocked down a smaller one, the others taking up the new game with zest, leather ball forgotten in the gutter.
“Ahoo, lookit Davey, he’s fallen in tha mud!” one soot-smeared girl cawed.
As the child got his arms underneath himself, half risen, the original bully swept them out from under, and he fell once more with a squelch and gales of laughter. Despite their commotion, the pack of urchins were largely ignored in the lengthening dusk.
“Phwa! C’mon, you guys, leave me alone!” squawcked Davey, bursting into tears.
“What a cry-baby! What a cry-baby!” said the girl, falling into the filth herself as she laughed.
As Davey struggled in the dirt, the bully lined up behind him for another trip. He was, however, able to get up to his knees, as the erstwhile forgotten ball sailed through the air and clipped the other youth in the face, laying him out full length in the clogged gutter. Gus got his hands underneath Davey’s arms, and lifted the boy to his feet, who promptly kicked him in the shin.
“Didn’t need your help, ya dung-face!” Grabbing the ball, Davey disappeared back around the corner, following most of the other children who had already slunk away, wary of the elder youths.
“Damn, try and help a kid these days,” said Gus, ruefully rubbing his shin.
“Ah, can’t help everyone, you know,” observed Gavyn.
“Too true,” Gus responded. “Good kick to him, though. He’ll be a’righ’,” he remarked with an appreciative grin as the two strode down the street.
“Eh! I saw you, Óengus Rua, throwin’ that ball a’ that defenceless bairn!” The youths, caught off-guard as they were accosted from a doorway across the street, stood dumb-founded. “You oughtta know better ‘n that, at yer age!” The woman stepped down into the street, fists planted on hips and skirts rippling.
“Wait till I tell yer Master Brice ’bout you two boys, picking on the young ‘uns round these parts! My, in my youth, never would I ‘ave dared to be caught scrappin’ in the streets! An’ you, young Gavyn!” she said, pointing an accusatory finger, “What with yer arm, you oughtta be the last one be pickin’ on those smaller ‘n you! Just lookit the two of you, covered ‘n muck ‘n blood!”
“Now hold on jus’ a minute, there, Goodwife Eilidh! Yon ‘defenceless bairn’ be pickin’ fights with the other urchins – smaller ones a’ that! All I be doin’ is evening the scores a bit!” said Gus indignantly. “An’ wha’s this ‘Rua’ business o ‘yorn? Your hair be as red as mine! Mind you, Gav,” he said, conspiratorially, “I ain’t heard o’ anyone getting a peek ‘neath the Goodwife’s there skirt, just ta double check, like!” he laughed, as he elbowed Gavyn in the ribs, dodging the withering glance delivered by Eiledh by ducking around a handy corner.
“Never heard the like!” said a red-faced Goodwife Eilidh, turning her Fury’s spleen on the hapless Gavyn. Gavyn, for his part, tried to shrink into the cracks in the cobbles, doing his best to be as unremarkable as the broken bits of stone. “Next I see that boy, I’ll tan the hide off ‘im!”
Shuffling uncomfortably, Gavyn mumbled “Well, ‘e was telling the truth ’bout the young ‘uns. An’ he did help me outta a jam with that skulk Toam…”
“Don’t you be tellin’ me nothin about that pilferer Toam! Why, jus’ the other day,” Eilidh said, turning to address another woman the next building over, “I caught him nickin’ some newly cleaned linens, right off me line out back! The nerve of some…”
Seeing his opportunity, Gavyn slunk away as quickly as his injured body would slink, fleeing around the same corner as his comrade-in-mischief.
“She’s not following you, is she?” said Gus as he sidled up to the quickly shuffling Gavyn.
“Nah, got caught up gossiping with ol’ Mistress Cardáil. Knowing her, they’ll be at it awhile.”
“Good. I imagine she could follow up on that threat of hers. Be worth it fer that peek, mind,” he said wistfully.
“Go boil yer head, ya great fool! We’ve got other troubles to look forward to,” said Gavyn. “You’ll be lucky to see straight once Brice is through with the both of us – he wanted us back by ‘noon, and it’s nearly dusk now. An’ we don’t even have all the ink he wanted! Where’re we going to come up with the copper to replace that, eh?”
With a glint in his eye, Gus said “Ah, I wouldn’t be too concerned o’ that. Methinks we’ve a friend who’d dearly like to help us on that count.”
“I know that look, what’ve you done now? How have you gotten me into more trouble?” said Gavyn accusatorily.
With mock sincerity, “Me? Oh, you hurt a body, you do! Me get you into trouble? Way’s I see it, I’m the one ta get you outta trouble! Some thanks!”
“Have over, o’course I appreciate your help. But, I still don’t see where we’re going ta find this ‘friend’ o’yorn. Who do we know that’s got the spare groats ta just give away, huh? Ain’t much that we lost, but it’s more’n you nor I see on a month.”
“Why,” Gus said smiling broadly “you are, of course, lookin’ at ‘im!” Without further ado, he produced a fat purse and neatly tossed it Gavyn, who, encumbered as he was with the satchel, neatly dropped it. The purse hit the ground with a dull clink, and, spilling open, revealed a sizeable cache of coins.
“Where ‘n the Cailleach’s cleft you get all tha’!?” said Gavyn with obvious amazement. “There mus’ be 5, no, 8 Crown’s worth in there!”
“’E may be a skulk, but at least our friend Toam be a skillful skulk!” said Gus with a grin.
Looking blankly from Gus to the purse and back, Gavyn said, contritely, “Aye, I guess ‘e is a’ that!” And, with a laugh, “I suppose he is good for something after all!”
The door creaked open, spilling out the candle light onto the paved street.
“Aha! An’ where’th have you two’th beenth?” slurred a voice, whistling through broken and chipped teeth.
Gus looked sidelong at Gavyn and groaned.
“Ugh, here we go.”
The two entered into the workshop, desk and shelves brimming with scraps of paper and stubs of candles. Those few still burning gave off sooty smoke, the smell of tallow thick in the air. In a far corner of the room, clothed in a worn cassock, sat the man who addressed them.
“Gavyn! Did’th I not tell yea to be back ‘ere afore noon’th?” the man said, turning to glare at the two youths. “Hmm?”
“Mess’r Brice, I did try to get back here, a’time, but I was waylaid by the sneak-thief Toam, who nearly made an end o’ me! If not for Gus’ timely arrival -”
“Timethly arrival? Where hadth he been? I senth the two of you out on a thimple tathk, andth ith taken you all day ta geth back here. Without that ink, I’ve not’th been able to get halfth the work for tha Docker’th Guildth done. You know well enough, thith streeth ith filled ta tha brim with clerkth hungry for workth, and we can harthly affordth ta give up the Guild contracth. Mark my wordth, they’ll drop us quick ath ya like should we be late’th with their order’th!
“Of course we realise that, Mess’r Brice! Like I was saying, we would have been back a’time if not for Toam attackin’ me and dumpin’ me over, spillin’ all the ink and what all -”
“Spillin all tha inkth? Spillin all tha inkth?! You mean ta tell me, after all thath time, you return here withouth any INK? If you weren’t ma thithterth son, Gavyn, I wouldth throw you out on your ath, atrophiedth arm and all! And you, Óengus Rua! Your thuppothed to be lookin after ‘im! What’th the meaning of thith ‘timely arrival’ I’m hearin’? I thwear, your ath thick ath you look -”
“Mess’r Brice,” said Gavyn forcefully, dropping the satchel on the table and opening it to show the remaining ink jars. “We’ve got plenty of ink, and we’ve got money enough to replace what’s broke -”
“Oh, aye, you betht believe it! And you’ll be puttingth that ink to work, the both of you! You’ll be staying up until the workth be done, and it betht be done by sun-up, or you’ll be feelin’ ma belt!”
“Ah, Mess’r Brice! -”
“Nah! I’ll none of it! I’ve had enough and I’m off ta bed. You betht keep the racket down, if you know what’th good for ya!” With that, the aged man lifted himself out of his chair, ink-stained fingers pressing into the worn wood. Once on his feet, he drifted towards the back of the room, towards a shadowed staircase.
“Well, that was great,” said Gus.
“Went about as well as could be expected, truthfully,” responded Gavyn in an exasperated tone, shifting the satchel and pulling up the newly-vacated chair to the desk. The chair, gripped in his good hand, dragged along the wooden floorboards.
“Go and grab yourself a chair from the other room, Gus. This promises to be a delightful evening.”
“Oh, aye, indeed,” Gus said, stifling a yawn.
The fitful light, filtered through the shuttered windows, winked out as the last of candles sputtered into a quiet death. The moon passed below sight, hiding behind the row of roofs and darkening the twisting lane. The lonelier part of the night set in, overseen only by the far-flung stars and those better-off abed.
It would have been difficult to see, difficult even for those creatures that make their home in such darkness, but, perhaps, straining at the utmost, one could have made out the ghostly outlines of a bony hand gripping the handle to shop-front door, quill sign swinging noiselessly above. And, if one caught the opportunity, as it moved through a thin ribbon of starlight, they could have just made out the glint of a ring, with a peculiar, bird-like design carved into matte, black jet. But then, perhaps not, as the figure occupied the doorway for nary a moment, before slipping just as noiselessly inside.