Eleven chapters into the re-work of book 2 of the Black Finn series, now. Here's a short preview of the opening chapter for those of you who do read my stuff :)
Night Shadows I
The night watchman on the quayside looked around at the sound of feet splashing through a puddle. It was a damp evening in early Autumn and a clinging fog hung over Orsiliath. In the semi-darkness, the ships tied to the quay lifted and fell as if riding on the gently sleeping chest of the bay. Nearby, a single post topped by a droplet obscured glass bulb held a guttering torch. The watchman lifted his own stave with its small candle holder.
“Who goes there?” His voice was muffled in the blanket that wrapped about the town, tonight. There was no reply. Oddly, he thought he could smell the scent of tropical mango for a moment but then it was gone and the sour smell of sea salt and old ships returned. He trudged along the quay, heading for the Seagate that led to Harbour Square. He started thinking about the end of his watch and the warm meal and beer at the Watchhouse.
Something dripped on his hat. The drops pattered, one, two, three. He cursed, softly, moving a step away. He must have got under an overhanging gutter with a leak. He just glanced up and then he saw the limp arm hanging out over the roof edge. There was a thick flow of liquid dripping off the roof edge. The night watchman took off his hat and inspected it. He felt something thick and congealed on his fingertips. In the half-light, he was sure although he already knew what it was. He fumbled with the ties and freed the bell on his stave. He began ringing it. “Oi, Oi! Murder! Foul Murder!”
We were staying overnight at “The Cock & Anchor”, an inn close to the harbour. Thunderchild, Marcabru, Ylloelae and myself had just got in from Saxburg and had decided to stop in Orsiliath for a couple of days to get to know the town before heading north. At breakfast, next morning, the inn was full of rumour as tradesmen came in and out and exchanged news with the bar staff. We listened, of course. It was interesting to hear the ordinary gossip but the item that was first on everyone’s list was the murder of a seaman. A murder in a sea port isn’t that uncommon but the nature of this one stood out. The man had been found with the top of his head removed and his brains had gone altogether.
Thunderchild sat up, first, when we heard someone mention this.
“What?” I said, intrigued by the story but not drawing any conclusion as yet.
“I have come across a dark race once before, a race that hate mankind, elven and the other younger races with a passion. They live in the deepest, darkest places in the world and prey upon others. They have tentacles instead of jaws with which they open the skulls of victims to feed on their brains. If one such being is here, that would be significant. We should pay attention to this tale. Such a being would be beyond the townfolk and militia. They have powers that rival dark wizards and always they are accompanied by slave warriors to provide muscle.”
“What would bring such a being up to the surface and to an island, especially Gwythaor?” I asked.
Thunderchild shrugged. “I know not, Finn, my friend but I think we should inspect for ourselves.”
“I’m game” Marcabru grinned as he finished and swallowed his fifth quail’s egg. “Once I have finished breaking my fast. I have some bacon coming and a little more toasted bread, some sausage, another egg, what they call black pudding, here, some fried tomato, mushrooms and onion together and a portion of some dish called “haggis”.
We all stared at him. Where Marcabru puts the quantity of food he can eat, nobody ever can work out. He isn’t a small man but he always remains fit and has never run to any real weight. I started laughing and Ylloelae joined in. “What?” Marcabru spread his hands wide. “A man has to eat.”
Sometime later, we were at the quayside. I was dressed in my usual black studded leather gilet over a black shirt, soft black leggings and boots. Ylloelae had thrown a brown cloak over her buff top and brown leggings, tied her hair back, roughly and put an old battered hat on to keep off the drizzle. She carried a quarterstaff. Thunderchild had taken the guise of an ageing sheriff with grey touched black hair, scale armour and a long grey cloak. He wore a ranger badge to identify him as a lawkeeper. Marcabru was the most colourful with his red headscarf, white lace tunic, bright blue cummerbund, black trews and boots and jewel studded belts. He wore his trusty falchion and several knives that poked from boot sheaths and other places. I had chosen to leave my greatsword, Clave concealed back at the rooms. I had a black light crossbow on my back, a hand crossbow swinging off my belt, my black and white handled daggers and a falchion.
The militia captain was grumbling when we got there. When he saw us he grumbled a good deal more about interfering amateurs and trouble but he let us have a look at the scene, respecting Thunderchild’s claim that he was a senior ranger and we were his companions. Thunderchild introduced us, “I am known as Thunderchild mostly because I wield a heavy blade, this is Black Finn who is our man for catching thieves and assassins. He has many skills not least being a dangerous man with sword or bow. Marcabru the troubadour is also a tough man in a fight. He is excellent at handling townsfolk and having experience as a seaman, himself, knows ships, too. Ylloelae is our healer. She was trained in Lorefast. She is also the most even handed and will probably lead when it comes to questioning people.”
The captain of Orsiliath’s militia was called Merl. He had two other men with him who answered to Hookes and Jarret. Hookes wasn’t keen to see us and replied with monosyllabic answers. Jarret was the more helpful and he opened up the loft and got a ladder down so we could climb up from inside to look at the roof. I could have climbed up quicker by my normal methods but no point in showing your hand too early.
The body was still on the roof being inspected by a doctor who rather worryingly went by the name “Graves” and a smartly dressed officer of a regular army unit dressed in green leather coat, brown hat with green and white feathers and black trousers. He introduced himself as Captain John Cleaver of the Ducal Halberdiers. He accepted our roles without question. It seemed that the rangers had a good reputation on Gwythaor. I was reminded that Jeffery, my old Gatebrand friend had gone to join them. We knelt and took in the murder scene.
The man lay slumped on the roof. I guessed from the marks that he had slid down after falling so was probably standing on the apex when he was struck. He had been killed by a single dagger blow at the top of the spine that had penetrated the lower head and neck, severing the spinal cord while causing a bleed out at the same time.
That was not so remarkable. Any experienced killer would know where to stab. The striking thing was that the whole top of his head had been ripped off. The bone fragments and shape of the ragged edges suggested incredibly sharp teeth or jagged implements like some kind of heavy saw. A little way off, across the roof were some spatterings of blood and fragments. Ylloelae examined these.
“I think the brain stem was removed, here. There are bits of spine as well. I’ve never seen any killing so grisly by a human, before. Assuming this was a human killer.”
“The captain has a suspect. Apparently the merchant who owns the vessel “Night Bird” was seen by a cellarman at “The Old Ship” just straightening up with blood pouring down his chin before running off and climbing over a wall. The man called over a militia guard and told him, this morning when the news got out. He seemed pretty sure it was the merchant that he saw. The man had just been at the inn and was wearing a particular jacket that was very distinctive.”
“And where is this merchant, now?” asked Thunderchild.
“Aboard his ship. Most of his crew are back on board, too. We’re watching the ship to make sure nobody leaves while the militia collect evidence.”
“If you don’t mind me asking.” I interrupted, “what’s your interest, sir? You’re obviously a professional soldier. Don’t the militia usually handle these affairs?”
Cleaver looked up briefly, “My men are responsible for securing the harbour and gates, now. Captain Merl has a lot to worry about. I like to ensure that the important matters are well supported.”
There was something in his tone that suggested something else. I exchanged glances with Thunderchild.
“You don’t trust the captain that much, do you?” asked Thunderchild, directly.
Cleaver didn’t answer at once but glanced at Thunderchild. “Do you have any theories, good ranger?”
“I had a particular concern based on a previous experience but this isn’t the same, at all.”
We climbed back down.
“Whatever or whoever killed the man, the blow was struck by someone who knew exactly what they were doing.” I commented, “I would suggest a trained assassin or similar but certainly someone who makes a living from murder and subterfuge. The only odd part is the way the brain was removed. Some less savoury mages will pay well for such things but I would have expected a neat hacksaw job. The way the head was opened looks more like the work of a lycanthrope than a man.”
“It crossed my mind that we may be dealing with a were-creature.” Marcabru nodded.
“And mine” said Thunderchild, “but why the brain? Lady Healer, any thoughts?”
Ylloelae shook her head. “Not yet. We should talk to the crew members and this merchant, also the cellarman who says he saw the merchant.”
We rejoined the militia. Captain Merl had already moved on with Hookes but Jarrett was still waiting for us.
“The captain is heading to the Night Bird to arrest the merchant. Do you want to go along, as well?”
We said we did and set off along the quay at a pace.
“I doubt a merchant would be capable of the murder we’ve just examined unless he is a somewhat unusual one.” I said.
“How do you know that?” Jarrett asked, not rudely but just inquisitively.
“Finn is our specialist in that area.” Replied Thunderchild, diplomatically. “He’d know.”
“Oh. You might find the captain hard to convince. Once he has a name in mind, he just likes to close things off without further ado. It gives him a good looking record.” Jarret nodded.
Again, we exchanged glances. “Not necessarily a good record for seeing justice done,” commented Thunderchild.
“It wouldn’t be for me to say, sir.” Jarret replied, mildly but I sensed at once that he knew that to be the case.
We found Night Bird about half way down the quay. It was a large ship with several levels and a host of lateen sails. There was a loud argument coming from the main deck.
We marched up the gangplank. Merl, Hookes and two other militia were standing with their backs to us, backed off from a large individual with a hook nose dressed in a purple jacket with yellow edging over a rich robe of purple silk. Between he and the militia were five men with assorted daggers, cutlass and clubs brandishing them and refusing to allow the militia to remove their boss. The outcome looked like it could turn ugly as more militia began to gather behind us.
“Ah, here’s the ranger and his men. I need immediate assistance arresting this man” Merl pointed at the man in the colourful jacket, “will you seize him and arrest or put down any of his crew who try to prevent us from doing our duty?”
All eyes turned to us. Thunderchild folded his arms. “We will not help, no. I suggest that there are no arrests until there is more proof.”
That deflated Merl. He had looked so sure of himself when we first appeared. Now, he sank back. “These seamen are obstructing an officer of the law going about his duty.”
“Technically that is true” Marcabru said with a smile.
“Everyone put down your weapons and back down, now” Thunderchild’s voice rang out.
“Who are you to start giving orders?” asked Hookes but his question kind of taled off as Thunderchild fixed him with a stare that was truly fierce.
The seamen shuffled back and lowered weapons. The merchant spread his hands, “there must be some mistake. I haven’t killed anyone. Why would I? I am a trader, just a poor and overworked man trying to make a living.”
Captain Cleaver pushed through the gathered crowd below, “what in the hells is happening here?”
“He won’t help us make the arrest.” Merl pointed at Thunderchild, “and now he’s taking over as if he’s in charge, telling everyone to put their weapons down. It’s not right.”
Cleaver looked around and then calmed considerably.
“There are questions to be answered.” He said.
“And so they shall be.” Thunderchild replied, “but not in Captain Merl’s way. I’d like to speak with the cellarman who saw,” he broke off and waved at the merchant.
“Fargus, Fargus Mardona. I am just a…”
“Yes, yes, a poor overworked trader trying to make ends meet. We know.” I finished his sentence and got a round of laughter from some of the crew and the crowd.
“And who the hells are you?” snapped Merl
“Black Finn at your service.” I gave a slight bow, “friend of the rangers and Duke Gwayne.”
“Willis, Franks, get the cellarman and bring him here,” snapped Cleaver.
“Perhaps it would be better if the crowd were dispersed peacefully and we continued in a more private place.” Suggested Ylloelae.
“The harbourmaster’s office?” Cleaver asked, annoyance creeping back into his tone.
“That would be acceptable.” Thunderchild answered.
“I will come if you guarantee my safety, big man.” Fargus said to Thunderchild, “and if I can take one of my men with me to see fair play is done.”
Thunderchild looked to Merl and Cleaver.
“Oh fine, just as long as we get on with it.” Merl snarled.
“I have no objection.” Cleaver added.
“Carew, you had best come. Captain,” he turned to one of his other men, “Get the ship ready to depart and make sure the animals are all secure. I am sure this will be easy enough to sort out.”
“What about the Valcorians?” the man addressed as captain said. “If they arrive, they’ll expect to see you and transfer the animals across as soon as they have made payment.”
“You’ll think of something.” Fargus winked and turned back to us.
“Come gentlemen and lady. I have pressing business and need to get back here soon. Perhaps we can dispel this nonsense and I can be back on my ship before nightfall.”