Well my gamble of leaving the loot with Kringle didn't pan out as I hoped, mainly because Ru is a shapeshifter, or, whatever. Either way it looks like were stuck working for her for now. I just hope Kringle hasn't done anything silly with our hard won booty. I'm taking my sword with me when I go to see him later. Just in case.
Greiip looked at the heavy grainpurse in front of him. He was afraid to touch it in case it evaporated or turned to dust. Karndal was just as speechless.
“The real winner was nabbing all those potions” said Kringle, “there was some powerful stuff there, a couple of aqualungs, a ferrous transmute, some emerald nectar, all sorts”.
“So..” Greiip reached out and picked up the grainpurse, feeling the weight of it. It felt heavy.
“So, you already sold everything?”
“Yes, how else do you think I got the grains?”
“But, when?” asked Greiip
“This morning, I like to get up early, otherwise you miss the best part of the day”.
Karndal laughed “the best part of the day is when your asleep in bed, so lying in doesn't have that problem for me”.
Kringle made a derisive snort.
“And this is everyone's share?” asked Greiip nodding to the purse.
“No that's yours and Karndal's, I took mine already.
“So run me through how much we made again?”.
“I got five thousand three hundred grains for everything you brought back, minus the fences share. From that I took the embassy tax, my cut and a little extra to sort out this mess with the wrong contracts being issued. That leaves you with just shy of three thousand five hundred grains to share between yourselves, however you see fit”.
Greiip's head began to spin at the figure. He had never had more than a hundred grains in his pocket ever. By the looks of it the purse wouldn't even fit in his pocket.
“Crikey that's almost enough to buy a small house” said Karndal.
“I've got to hand it to you Kringle” said Greiip “I didn't think you were this honest”.
Kringle's beard smiled at him “well good adventurers are worth keeping happy, you two could be my first real success. Shall we celebrate with a round of hot ciders?”
“A lovely offer” said Greiip pulling his collar open to let a cloud of steam out “but we have to be somewhere, how about you keep it for us and we can pop by again later”.
“Yes yes please don't let me hold you up” said Kringle busying himself with his ledger. Greiip could see happiness in Kringle's sunken eyes. Outside the two of them let out a whoop. Karndal did a little dance on the spot.
“What was that?” asked Greiip frowning.
“Just a little dance of joy”.
“That was dancing?”
They had agreed to meet Ru just after sunquarter at a pub called the Tin House not far from Dewing road. The place was pokey and dark, a locals establishment. Karndal radiated confidence here and he shared a brief joke with the landlord that made no sense to Greiip. He asked for two halves of a drink called Bunfry Gollop that was so thick the barman had to hit the barrel with a special stick to make it flow. Greiip tasted it, the vapour made his eyes water almost as much as the price but it was divine.
Karndal looked around the room. “Not too busy” he said quietly “round for everyone on me” he said somewhat louder slapping a small pile of grains on the counter. A cheer went up but Greiip pulled the lad to one side.
“We should divvy the gold before you go getting the whole town drunk”.
“Fine” Karndal handed him the purse “let me just take a little bit for walking around money then” he said dipping his hand in again. A crowd was already at the bar and a few others with an apparent sixth sense for free booze had come in off the street. Greiip looked at the door, no sign of Ru yet. He looked back to the bar. Karndal was chatting animatedly to everyone at once and handing drinks around, a smile so big it threatened to injure him. Taking a burning candle from the rack by the door Greiip stepped outside and took out his pipe. Crumbling a couple of lahta beans into the end he lit it and inhaled their caramel smoke. He was just exhaling when a sudden commotion made him jump out of his skin. A black shape leapt out of the shadow of the garden wall and lunged at him with a bright blade flashing in the morning sun. Survival instinct empowered his arm and with a high pitched scream he punched the shape square in the middle of what he presumed was it's face. The shape staggered back, dropping the knife and bringing both hands up to it's head.
“OW” came a nasally voice. It pulled the hood back to reveal a lady nearing the twilight of her years.
“Ahh you bloke by fudding dose”
“I'm sorry” said Greiip, “are you okay”
“Do, ob course dot”.
“Who are you?” he said.
“I'm missus fudding Fawdhill” she said “who the fudd are you?”
So, missus Fawnhill had come for her revenge.
“Look, I had nothing to do with what happened to your family” said Greiip “that Rotaan fellow, he's a maniac. I crossed ways with him by chance, the only reason I went to the riverdocks that night was to get my friend back”.
“Thangyou” said missus Fawnhill “his name was all I deeded. Rodaan. Well, goobye who eder you are”.
She shot down and grabbed the knife, coming up with it raised. At that moment another robed figure appeared from the side gate of the pub's small garden and raced over. A silver flash and missus Fawnhill was suddenly headless. Her body took a moment to realise then, with what looked like a petulant shrug, slumped into a pile amongst the long robe. Greiip tried to scream but a gloved hand came over his mouth. After a second it relaxed.
“Rotaan?” he said.
“Who?” asked Ru pulling back her hood.
“Oh, normally someone else does that for me, sorry”.
“You're a strange chap Greiip” she said looking around. “Where's the other one?”
“Inside” Greiip nodded to the bar door “best leave him, you can liaise with him through me, probably easier that way”.
Ru stroked her chin “okay, he does seem easy to confuse”.
“He's not stupid he's just, daft. There's a difference”.
“I'll take your word on that. So who was that?” asked Ru.
“Missus Fawnhill, a problem I thought would take a lot longer to sort out”.
Sounds of the party inside moving to the beer garden could be heard. When Greiip looked back Ru had already gone. Out in the road he saw her beckon from further down the street. How had she got so far away already?
“Boo” came her voice next to him. Greiip barely managed to stop himself from having a heart attack.
“Stop doing that” he said “and who is that down there?”
“Me, I'm just having a quick scout ahead”.
Ru's eyes flickered for a moment. It was the barest thing but for a blink they were green all over, then normal.
“All clear” she said.
“What do you mean all clear?” asked Greiip as they set off walking. Back down the lane a commotion was coming from the pub. The killing would draw a few watchmen from around here to the Tin House but once they realised who it was, well Greiip imagined no great fuss would be made.
“I'm meeting my contact a few streets away. I'm in a bit of a bind, I think he's being watched but I really have to meet him, if not just to warn him to go to ground. He's a good lad and a deadly assassin so he's useful to me too”.
They rounded the corner and crossed over the next road to an archway.
Ru pushed open a gate “through here. You see my power is limited but with extra souls I can.. ah there he is”.
Ru had had led them behind a shedhouse deep in the centre of the town. A young boy was sitting on the edge of a small stone well swinging his legs. He jumped down when he saw Ru. Greiip recognised him at once as Jimly the barboy.
“Who's this joker?” asked the lad.
“I know who you are” said Greiip, “you're the lad from mister Gylp's place, Jimly isn't it?”
The boy laughed “That's one of my names” he said “you were there that night the Fawnhill lot got taken out. I'd watch your back, they say missus Fawnhill is looking for the ones who did it”.
The lad was different to their first meeting. Confident, calm and quietly observant he made sparing eye contact instead seeming to be constantly watching the background and bushes.
He turned in Ru's general direction “anyway, I got your message, what's so urgent we need to risk our cover?”
“Threefingers knows you're here, he's had people watching me trying to find you”.
“So you know that's what he wanted and you met me anyway” said Jimly.
“Best way to draw him out” said Ru looking around.
Greiip began to grow nervous “so why did you bring me here”? He said.
“As I was saying” said Ru, “my powers are limited but I can” she paused “borrow other peoples souls to increase it's potency. Now I can see you looking nervous already Greiip but I don't have time to argue about this. You know what I can do so spare us both a row and just let me borrow you”.
Greiip saw flutters of movement along the rooftops, a hand here, a boot there, always just out on the edge of sight. They were surrounded and his sense of danger told him the circle was closing on them.
“You could have warned me another way” said Jimly drawing a sliver of metal from an unseen pocket. It looked like an incredibly thin knife, so thin it was barely visible side on.
“I needed them to think the ambush was working” said Ru “and you can put that blade away lad, I need your soul too”.
“Oh come on” protested Jimly “every time we get a bit of action you do this, I'm ready”.
“I know you are” said Ru “but I need this to go right, your skills are amplified through me you know that. Your no good to me dead Hajji”.
“Fine” said Jimly, or Hajji. He turned to Greiip “well come on, we'd better get somewhere safe”.
He led them quickly into the shedhouse nearby and sat down in a corner. Greiip followed suit.
“What do we have to do” he asked.
“Nothing” said Jimly resting his head back against the wall “just be ready for the shock, and don't try to fight her”.
Suddenly the lad's eyes went blank white but Greiip had only a second to register this before a searing pain shot through his head. He tensed up but a gentle whisper amongst the pain reached him. He didn't even hear what it said but he was suddenly relaxing, the pain flowing through him like a river. Within moments the pain became pleasure and his head hummed with a sensation of warmth and joy. He felt grass beneath his feet and looked down to see he was standing in a field with sunlight on him and a scent of honey in the air. A glow came hovering down in front of him and began to take form. It was Ru, bathed in a light from some unseen source, even brighter than the sunlit field around them.
“Where am I?” asked Greiip.
“Between souls, just a little place I made for first timers, it can be a bit of a shock you see, joining into someone else’s being. For you and for me. You're going to able to move and think by yourself but you will have some of my skills as well. Don't get carried away, stick to what you know and if you feel me guiding you don't try to resist. Time is slower in here but not by much, the battle has already started, there are many of them attacking us. It's going to be tight but we should be able to do this. Are you ready?”
“No” said Greiip.
Ru smiled “excellent” her glowing form dispersed and, like a reflection on a puddle disrupted by a stone, the sunny field shimmered away to reveal the backstreet again. Greiip's head spun, if he could call it 'his' head. He was aware of his physical form, his earthly body being close by but not connected and fought back the urge to vomit. A figure in leather and mail armour spun around and looked at him. It was Ru but, somehow not.
“Jump” it shouted and Greiip moved aside just as a small knife wedged itself into the wall next to him. With a duck and a roll he avoided a further flurry of throwing knives before disappearing around a corner. He stopped. Was he supposed to be hiding, was this helping? He was about to turn back when a series of shrieks resounded and Not-Quite-Ru came darting around with a grin.
“Good work Greiip, keep drawing them out like that”.
“Thanks Ru” he said.
Ru frowned “It's Hajji, Jimly, me. How haven't you figured this out yet”.
Greiip looked down at 'his' body to discover a pair mail clad arms there. He was wearing the same outfit as Ru, or Jimly (or Hajji), or whoever was standing in front of him (or her). He steadied himself against the wall.
“Where's the real Ru?” he asked?
“Over there somewhere” said Jimly pointing across the yard “follow the sounds of fighting”
“Greiip poked his head out. The rooftop knife throwers had gone, or died, but a sharpshooter with a bow saw him.
“Marksman” yelled Greiip and darted out as the archer took aim. It took him only a heartbeat to realise this was a very good archer. The bad ones shoot as soon as they see you, the good ones don't. Greiip felt the bow tracking him, trying to find a point ahead where an arrow could intercept him. Knowing this Greiip lunged to the side as if to evade the archer, a move he knew was a folly. However his right leg was ready for the manoeuvre. He let his knee take the landing, sinking down a hands width then with a grunt he pushed hard against the ground, propelling himself back the way he had just come. Done correctly it would look, to a casual observer, as if Greiip had landed on a spring. The archers shot landed far away and Greiip rolled to dodge the next one but it never came.
“Nice one Greiip” said Hajji running past still in Ru's form. Greiip looked back to see the bowman slumped over the crest of the roof he had been shooting from.
“Gotta love knife throwers” said Jimly “providing you with a free weapon every time they miss”.
The backstreet ahead had several more dead men here and there, all in the same black leather and mail as the others, their faces hidden by cloth wraps. Jimly pointed the way down.
“She's winning, there's only one of them left fighting her but she has him surrounded”.
Just then a mailed fist shot out from an awning and struck Jimly across the Helmet. A crack opened and a grey powder fell out. Jimly collapsed and the form disappeared with a burst of dust. An armour clad shape stepped out from the awning with a heavy looking mace in one hand and a dagger in the other. Greiip eyed the dagger first. He could dodge a heavy mace but he didn't like knives.
“Very trusting of you to allow that shapeshifting harlot use of your soul” said the figure advancing.
Greiip's mind raced, he had seen this enough times to know he was supposed to say something back but he had never practised for being in a real sword fight beyond learning how to swing a sword. This bantering business seemed difficult and he was suddenly terrified he would sound stupid.
“Well you're just a massive idiot” he said feeling proud of coming up with such a good zinger.
“New to this I see, well that just makes you easier to kill” the assailant swung in with his mace just moments before he finished speaking but Greiip's mind had already calculated the next few moments of action and come up with a solution. He ducked under the mace bringing his sword up vertically as he did to block the hidden knife jab. The duck was all him but the block, that was new. His legs took a life of their own and he nimble footed around his assailant giving him a cut along his calf in the process. The attacker swung angrily at thin air and toppled onto the point of Greiip's sword. The weapon slid between the joins of the armours plate with amazing precision and with a gurgle the man died. Greiip let go of the sword letting it fell to the floor with the dead body and stepped back, shocked. The sensation of being punched in the gut came over him suddenly and with a sudden flash he was back in the shedhouse, Hajji sitting up next to him.
“So you died as well?” said the lad rubbing his head.
“No, I killed” replied Greiip as some of the feeling's about what he had just done began to set in.
“Just as likely to break the spell for first timers, dying's worse though, hurts like hell”.
Greiip was just happy the confusion (of being not quite another person but possibly also a woman) had stopped. Hajji jumped up onto his feet.
“We should go and see if she's okay”.
Ru was easy to locate by the sounds of a violent fight. The open space by the well was a ghastly sight to behold. At least a score of dead men littered the floor with more hanging or sagging from rooftops and awnings. In the centre of it all, red from head to foot two lonesome figures battled in desperation. It was like no fight Greiip had ever seen. Snappy conversation had been replaced by grunts and howls.. There was no shining magical armour, enchanted pendants or spell casting, just blood and entrails and swearing. Greiip shuddered.
“Why doesn't she try to split up and surround him?” he asked as stopped near the fray.
“She was, maybe he took the other two out” replied Hajji.
“Who are the other two?”
“Oh” Greiip took out his sword and began to advance.
“What are you doing?” said Hajji.
“Going to help her” said Greiip.
“I wouldn't” said Hajji, “Anything in arms reach becomes a weapon in her arsenal, bystanders included”.
Just at that moment Ru looked in their direction.
“What the hell are you two standing around for?” she yelled “get stuck in already”.
Possibly suspecting a trick her combatant didn't turn to look, which allowed Hajji to quickly descend on him from behind, sliding that sliver of a knife up into the man's armpit. He howled and turned on Hajji, a look of panic in his eyes for a brief moment before being beaten to the floor by Ru from behind. Straddling the dying man's back and without a moments hesitation Ru straightened out one of the chap's arms and hacked it off in two clean swipes of her war axe. She stood up with the appendage and walked over to Greiip.
“Hold this” she said handing him the severed arm.
Greiip took it and hefted it a couple of times noting it had only two fingers and a thumb. “Heavy. So why the arm?”
“Something that makes no sense” she said pulling a sheet from a nearby washing line. She began to wipe her face “something I've never seen before”
“Let me guess, some tattoos that shouldn't be there” said Greiip.
Ru smiled and looked at him sidelong.
“Well you certainly are full of surprises” she said, “yes, this lot never mark their mercenaries, now suddenly a whole contingent turn up with the same tattoo. If you know something Greiip..”
“No, I can't enlighten you as to what the design means but I know someone else who is interested in tattoos he doesn't recognise. Best thing would be if I set you two up to meet”.
Best thing? He asked himself: Rotaan and Ru in the same room? It would be like fire and ice. And, as always, there he would be in the middle of it all, like luke warm water.