Micker and I spread the map out on the table. “You can see it all here,” I told Pagomari. “The sewers are wide enough to fit a man through, and the Temple of Kashell has its own drain.” I spoke in a whisper, and Micker kept his eyes peeled to make certain that none of the drinkers in The Gauntlet and Brand were paying too close a mind to us. “The drain is in the kitchen, but the kitchen’s just a speck over from the shrine, where the gems we mean to lift are.”
The Bard Pagomari listened patiently, a pipe in his mouth, his dark eyes narrow as he studied the map. “This came from Amundi the Saber,” he said. Micker gave us a nervous look over his shoulder.
“That’s right,” I answered. I didn’t know how he’d figured that so quick, but that’s what Pagomari did: found the bits and pieces that others overlooked. Amundi the Saber is a bad man with a bad reputation, and stealing his job would be as bad as stealing something he’d already stolen, if you follow. Going against Amundi would be enough to frighten most robbers off the job, and I had hoped to wait a bit before letting Pagomari in on Amundi’s part in all this. “Micker lifted it when Amundi hired him to pick open the lock on the grate what’s over the pipe where the water drains into marsh when it storms.”
“Micker couldn’t open the lock,” I added, “but he wanted to see what the Saber was up to, so he lifted this map off of him.” Micker turned to us again, a modest grin on his thin face. Then he resumed his watch.
Pagomari reached out and tapped the map with his fingers. I took the hint and rolled it up. The bard leaned back in his chair and watched me some more, the ends of his long black mustache bobbing as he chewed on his pipe. I’ve known Pagomari for years, and I knew that while the bard was quick-witted, he also was slow-tongued, and he took his time in speaking. This usually makes me talk twice as much, and tonight was no different. “I know it won’t be easy,” I said. “There’s the guards, and those Priests of Kashell are harder men than most.”
“Is it true that they sleep in their plate armor?” Micker interrupted.
“Quiet, Micker,” I scolded. “Have you seen the gems we mean, Pagomari?” The bard nodded once. Of course he had seen them; everyone has. The red rubies we wanted to steal were bigger than a horse’s hoof, and set as eyes in the bust of Kashell that looks out over the temple. “Now, we figure that there will be no guards in the temple, because the place is like a fortress and it’s impossible for a robber to get that far. But, if we use the drains, we’ll be in and gone before anyone’s the wiser.” Still the bard was silent. I had worked with him enough to know that he would speak in time, but I couldn’t help piling more of my enthusiasm on him, hoping some of it would sink in and fire him up. “The gems are the biggest prize in Shava,” I said. “Any robber worth his sap has to make a go at them, if there’s any chance at getting them.” Pagomari’s expression didn’t change. In fact, the bard wasn’t even looking at me, anymore. Rather his gaze had drifted off somewhere in the distance, as his mouth worked over the stem of his pipe. Smoke leaked from his nostrils.
“Will he help us?” Micker asked.
“Shut up, Micker!” I said. The young thief spun back around, his eyes on the tavern door. “It has to be soon,” I told Pagomari. “Amundi’s no fool. Before too long he’ll figure it was Micker who took his map and this little rat’s got to be long gone before then.” Micker gave me a sharp look at being called a rat, but I ignored him. “Listen, Pagomari, I have nothing against Kashell, his Priests, or the Shava Citadel. Hell, I’ve prayed to Kashell myself more than once, but you have to agree that they’re altogether too full of themselves, and it would do them good to go down a notch.” Micker nodded in enthusiastic agreement.
Pagomari looked us both over. I knew we were in as soon as I saw the light come into his eyes — that magnificent imagination of his had seen through all the hindrance this job could offer, and the gems would be ours. “We go tomorrow night,” the bard said. “Meet me by the sewer grate at midnight. Wear your studded leather shirt and bring a shield. I’ll need another rat like this one” — he nodded at Micker — “and a simple gold ring with one stone.” He stood and turned to me. “I’ll have no other brutes on this one. Come rested and ready to use your sword.” The bard then left without taking his leave.
Micker watched him go. “He’s a rude one, isn’t he?” he said.
“He doesn’t speak much, I’ll admit,” I said, rising from the table.
“Odd for a bard to be so quiet,” said Micker as we left the tavern. “Why’s he called a bard, anyway? He doesn’t sing, tell stories or what-all, and he seems very grim.”
“He is quiet for a bard, I know,” I answered. “But that’s what he calls himself, and I would put no other name to him.” We made our way down the streets of Shava Citadel, quiet after dark. Kashell is the biggest god in Shava, and the Shava Citadel is his city. Most of Shava was religious, dedicated to Kashell and his strict doctrines of tee-totaling, abstinence, and, to my way of thinking, deadly dullness. “Pagomari could steal the food from your fork, but I wouldn’t call him a thief, and while he’s handy with a sword, he’s no warrior,” I said. “But I trust him more than any other man breathing, both for his loyalty and his accomplishments.”
“Perhaps he is a wizard, then,” suggested Micker.
“If he knows any magic, I’ve never seen him use it.” I quieted as we neared a patrol — two guardsmen accompanied by a Priest of Kashell. The Priest’s armor clattered and creaked as he passed. I am a big man, but the Priest stood a full head taller than I and was just as broad. Fighting him would be like fighting a watchtower that was swinging a mace at my head. The temple we were going to rob was their home, and there would be scores of Priests there. I held my tongue until they passed. “No, Pagomari’s strength is in his wit,” I said, when the way was clear. “When he does speak, you’d do well to listen. Do you know another thief who’s fit for this job?”
Micker shrugged. “Jossen will serve, but he’ll do no better with that lock than I did.” We were nearing the flophouse we were sleeping in. With Pagomari behind the scheme, I knew this would be our last night sleeping on a floor, pressed in among a hundred caravan drivers. “What’s he needing a ring for?” Micker asked.
“Don’t worry about that.” I said. “It’s Pagomari’s job now. We’ll come along and lift what needs lifting and fight what needs fighting, and when the job’s over, we’ll be standing with a pile of money wondering how it all happened. He’ll see us through. It’s his way.”
* * *
And that was the way of it, I swear by the Nine. While we were recruiting a thief and finding a ring, Pagomari was busy stacking plan upon plan, so that no turn or circumstance would find him unprepared.
Micker, Jossen, and I met Pagomari at the sewer grating at midnight. The bard was waiting for us, with a young wizard whose name he did not give us.
The wizard was a stranger to me, and I don’t know where Pagomari found him. Wizards aren’t that common to start, and usually anyone who can afford to study magic is too high and mighty to throw in with robbers such as us. I could see right away that he was a nervous sort.
Pagomari gestured for us to stand back, and then gave the wizard a pat on the back. The lad began chanting and singing, as spell-casters do, his voice low, and to my ears, cracking with worry. He was trying to put on a brave face, but it was plain that robbery was not his meat, as it were. The lad was wearing slippers and a robe for a night’s walk in the sewers, for one. Micker and Jossen saw that and gave me a look. Just then the heavy lock gave a jump, and it fell into the water, sprung open as neat as if we’d brought the key. Micker swore softly and I clapped him on the back of the head. “They got the lock open where you couldn’t,” I said. “Trust Pagomari. He’ll be counting coins he’s stolen when you’re so much mulch in a garden.” The bard hushed us and led us into the pipe.
From there it was simple — till the end. We went down the sewers and followed the map, which was true enough and got us there. The temple was as quiet as we had expected, and by the time a Priest who had come into the kitchen to raid the larder discovered us, we were halfway back into the sewers. Even then, we had a fair lead on them and all went well enough, at first. In fact, we were running for daylight before the dung hit the basilisk, as they say.
* * *
There we were: a score of yards from the grate where we had come in. Behind us, we could hear the shouts of our pursuers: a dozen Priests of the Citadel. It had seemed we had lost them for a time, but we had lost ourselves in doing so. After much stumbling and a few nasty surprises, we found our way back to the main pipe. Almost at once, a bad turn by us and a lucky one by the Priests brought them within spitting distance of us, and the race was on again.
“I thought that the alligator had gotten them,” Micker said as the Priests renewed their pursuit. His leather jerkin was slick with the foul waters of the sewers, and his knuckles bloody with countless tumbles and falls.
“It will take more than a sewer alligator to stop them,” I replied. We were still faster than the Priests, but not as fast as we’d once been. Pagomari had been right about the sewers being dangerous, and as the brute, I had my hands full just keeping us alive down there. I did my best, but when we stumbled into the webs of some pony-sized spiders, one of the critters got past me and stung Jossen. Pagomari had done something to save the thief’s life, but the poison made him weak, and it was all Jossen could do to keep his feet.
Pagomari’s wizard had been a terrified wreck since the caper began, and since breaking the lock he hadn’t done much else beside whimper and cry; now the lad seemed nearer to collapse than any of us. In truth, the skinny youngster was beginning to rub me wrong. If he fell, I vowed to leave him for the alligators, although I knew that Pagomari would never allow such a thing.
As for the bard himself, only he seemed fresh, his simple clothes still remarkably clean, his hair and beard mostly free of the filth that swamped the rest of us. I watched him as we hustled down the pipe, and could not fathom how he had come through so well.
Pagomari was first to reach the grate, and the bard wedged his body in the gap and pushed upwards, lifting the iron bars enough to allow the rest of us to slip through. I lent my shoulder to his and lifted, my back quivering with the effort. How had the thin bard held this weight, even for a moment? As Pagomari helped the others, I looked back down the tunnel. I could see the torches and magical lights carried by the Priests growing closer, but I was thankful at how far back they were: we could drop the grate back in place, lock it, and be on our way before they even got a good glimpse of us. Pagomari pulled Micker and Jossen through, then the wizard. I knew something was wrong when I heard Micker drop Jossen into the water.
“Drop the grate and step out,” a voice commanded. I was still watching down the pipe, and while nothing actually touched me, I could feel the weight of several crossbow bolts aimed at my back. It’s a sense that we fighting robbers develop over time.
I also knew that the man commanding the crossbows wasn’t of the Priests, as I could hear both crime and villainy in his voice. I looked to Pagomari. The bard looked to me and nodded. I stepped out of the sewer, easing the heavy grate down as gently as I could, and turned to face our enemy.
The sewer emptied into a wide ditch, the sides taller than a man and dressed in crushed stone. Atop the ditch on both sides stood seven well-armed and competent-looking mercenaries, each leveling a crossbow at us. To their center stood none other than Amundi the Saber himself, a clever frown on his face, as if he were disappointed in the ease with which he caught us. I cursed myself for a fool. Amundi had done the smart thing, and rather than chasing Micker down to get his map back, he set watchers on the sewer, waiting for us to go in, to be ready for us when we came out. It’s the tragedy of being the brute that you are usually surrounded by men who know more than you, and always seem to be walking in at the middle of the tale, as they say.
I knew Amundi, however, and in knowing, I understood that giving him our hard-stolen gems would not spare us. He would cut us down for the insult we had done him, if not just for the plain heartlessness of it. Micker knew this as well as I, and the young thief was already in a crouch, ready to move when the crossbows were fired. Jossen was on his back in the muck, still breathing but no help. Pagomari’s wizard was turning in a small circle, clucking like a chicken surrounded by foxes, his slippers squishing in the shallow stream, and Pagomari stood silent, his expression as inscrutable as ever. I wondered if Amundi, who was a sly villain, had gotten the better of the master strategist Pagomari, but even as I thought it, I stepped closer to the bard, hoping that some of his luck would rub off on me. Behind me, in the tunnel, I could hear the Priests coming closer.
Amundi stared down at me, a villain’s smile on his face. He and I had crossed swords before and perhaps he assumed that I was the leader of this gang. “Now lock the grate, as you intended,” he told me. “I won’t have any interruptions to our talk.” I stared right back at Amundi, feeling the exhaustion and weariness boil out of me as my blood rose. I felt Pagomari’s hand on my arm, the pressure of his grip telling me to fight.
Amundi saw our resistance building. “Will you and your men deliver?” he asked, anger apparent in his voice. I could hear the Priests splashing up the sewer quite clearly now, but there was still time enough to lock the grate if one of us down in the ditch did it, or if Amundi’s men were both accurate and swift. The Saber understood this as well. “Kill them,” he said. His men, having already chosen their targets, fired their crossbows.
Pagomari is, as I said before, an unspeaking man, especially for a bard, so it was long before I learned the story behind the young wizard we had dragged with us through the sewers. What I have thought through on my own is that the wizard was a bookish lad who imagined adventure to be something different than what it was. I do not think he had ever faced death before that day, and now, with nothing between his skinny ribs and the steel head of a crossbow bolt, he did what most tyros do: he panicked. The difference here is that most tyros are armed with swords and shields, not magic.
Even as Amundi’s men took their shots, Pagomari’s wizard called out in that strange language of magic, and the air around us quivered as it does when magic is at work. The skinny wizard threw his arms up in a wide, sweeping gesture, and I was nearly knocked to the ground as the water in the ditch rose up in a vast, foul surge. The crossbow bolts were caught in the rush of water and sent spinning into the current. Robbed of their force, the bolts tumbled harmlessly among us as the sewer water fell like rain.
Micker and I didn’t know what had happened, we just knew we weren’t dead, and that’s all scrapers like us need to know to keep fighting. I had my sword out and made ready to slash at two of Amundi’s men who were sliding down the loose gravel of the trench towards me. Micker was hunkered down near me, his daggers drawn. I was too taken with the charging mercenaries to think where Pagomari might have gone, but I could see that he was no longer at my right hand. Micker shouted something that may have been, “The bard’s run out on us!” But it’s hard to make out words in the din of battle, falling sewer water, and Pagomari’s wizard crying like a woman. Then the rain of sewer water ended, and Micker and I were hard at work against five men.
So occupied was I in blocking their cuts and thrusts, watching Amundi as he crept ’round to find my back, and by the flash of armor as a Priest raised the sewer grate and stepped through, that I nearly overlooked the unmistakable ripple of air that meant that a spell had been cast over me.
“WEAPONS DOWN!” a Captain of the Priests shouted in my ear. In truth, the man was ten paces distant but he was calling us in the pitch he used to make himself heard upon larger battlefields than this, and the command of his voice was enough to stay me where cutting swords had not. I looked up from my work and saw that the Priests were mercilessly trampling over any who were in reach, including Amundi himself: I watched The Saber go down beneath a blur of silver maces and hammers. At that, his men put up their blades, so I stopped fighting, but I kept a grip on my sword and shield. Then I spared a glimpse at Micker, and was shocked into dropping my weapon by what I saw.
The young thief stood beside me, still beset by two of Amundi’s men and in desperate defense of his life, but he was neat as a pin! Gone were his leather shirt and trousers, the scads of rope and pry bars he always carried and who knows what else, all of which would have branded him a robber surely as if he was already in the stocks with a sign about his neck. Instead, Micker was now dressed in the finery of a nobleman; his hair was slicked back in the most current fashion. Even his piebald beard had been substituted with a neat and stylish goatee. Just as wondrous, just an instant before Micker had been drenched head-to-foot in the scum of the sewers, now he was near bone-dry. Only his calves were damp, and those only just.
Micker stared back at me with the same disbelief, and I glanced down to see that not only was I dressed in the garb of some well-to-do nobleman’s personal guard, but that I too was nearly completely dry. I looked and saw that Jossen, who still lay unmoving, half in the water, was otherwise dry and his garments were most neatly arranged. The Priests, by contrast, were smeared with grime, and Amundi’s men were still filthy from the wave of sewer water that had overwhelmed us.
The Priests stamped all around us, quashing any lingering thoughts of resistance or escape by brandishing their maces, war hammers, and massive crossbows. None of us dared speak. As the Captain looked us up and down, I became aware of a sound like clapping, and all of us — Micker, Priests, Amundi’s men, and most confused of all, a bruised Amundi the Saber himself — looked about for the source. There, atop the trench, stood the bard Pagomari, and beside him, the young mage. The wizard was obviously still shaken, but Pagomari seemed to hold him steady with just his presence. Both were now dressed in the resplendent garb of noblemen and scholar. Pagomari was clapping and calling “Huzzah.” There was a dandyish lilt to his voice.
The captain of the Priests looked up at him. “Who might you be?” he asked, the murder in his voice tempered by the dazzle of Pagomari’s evident wealth and influence. Nevertheless, a few of the Priests turned their crossbows up towards him.
Pagomari stopped applauding and took a silver cane from beneath his arm. He stood with one gloved hand upon the cane, the other resting jauntily on his hip, and said, “I am Indutioamrus Robhartach,” he said, his tongue confidently trickling off the many syllables of one the more prominent merchant families in the Citadel. “My men and I were in the process of teaching these rogues some manners when you Priests arrived. Huzzah,” he said once again.
The Captain of the Priests squinted up at the transformed Pagomari. “What are you doing by the sewer?” he asked. One of Amundi’s men made to speak and was thumped by a Priest. He fell with a splash.
“My men and I came here to retrieve a ring I that fell from my finger and into a drain,” Pagomari said. Although I was completely absorbed in Pagomari’s performance, I did see a few of the Priests exchange glances between themselves. “A simple ring with only a single stone, but it was a gift from a lady, and I would loathe to suffer the embarrassment of its loss. I at once returned to the tavern and offered a reward for anyone who could reclaim it. My good man there–” he pointed at the unconscious Jossen — “said all was not lost, that there was a way into the sewers. My companions and I were away at once. When we arrived here,” he said, glaring down at Amundi and his men, “two of these fellows here told us to –” he paused, as if having trouble with the obscenity. “They told us to go stuff it,” he managed at last. “Well. I objected, told them that I was a nobleman of Shava, and demanded that they give way. Do you know what he said to that?”
“What did they say?” asked the Captain.
Pagomari looked the Captain dead in the eye. “That all men of Shava are sons of pigs and the Citadel a proper wallow for them.”
A ripple of outrage passed through the Priests at the insult. “They said that?” the Captain asked. Pagomari nodded solemnly. The Captain turned and looked us all up and down: Amundi’s men, garbed for battle and drenched with foul water, against my companions and I, clean as cups and fresh as flowers. We stood in silence, the only sounds being the heavy breathing of those of us so dim as to make our living by arms instead of wit. I fancied I could hear Amundi’s temper rising.
“So we had no choice,” Pagomari said. “My men went down to teach them manners. It was all going well when several others came from the tunnel just steps ahead of you. They knocked poor Illium there on the head and down he went.” He indicated Jossen with a wave of a kid-gloved hand.
One of the Priests approached the Captain and whispered in his ear. The Priest reached into his belt and drew forth a small ring with a single stone. The Captain considered it for a moment, and then turned towards me.
“Here.” He pressed the ring into my hand. “You and your lordship take your fallen man and get going,” he said, his grim, battle-scarred face close to mine. “We’ll handle this from here.” Micker and I picked Jossen up and climbed the embankment as swiftly we were able.
“Wait, don’t let them go –” was all the protest Amundi the Saber could manage before one of the Priests drove a mailed fist into his jaw.
When Micker and I reached the top, Pagomari took Jossen from Micker’s shoulder and helped me get the small thief up upon my back. It was a good thing none of the Priests could have smelled the nobleman, or his ruse would have failed. The seeming that the mage had laid upon us was already fading, and the bard seemed more himself — weary, grimy, a bit spent from what brilliance he had already worked, a bit wary of what contests lay before us.
“Walk until they can’t see us,” Pagomari told Micker in a whisper, “and then run like the devil is at your heels.” From below, I could hear the early blows of a careful, measured beating being handed out. Ahead of me, I saw that our wizard was already away, his speed somehow magically enhanced. Pagomari and I took a few composed steps should any of the priests be watching, and then we began to run.
“How did you do all of that?” I asked the bard, speaking as best I could while running with an insensible thief draped over my shoulders.
“Which part?” Pagomari asked.
“Any of it!” I exclaimed. “All of it! How did you sneak past Amundi’s men, get that shaking mage to cast the right spells, know enough to leave the ring where one of the Priests would find it, and then gamble it all that the Priests wouldn’t search us? By hell, how did you even pronounce Indutioamrus Robhartach?”
A faint smile crossed the bard’s lips, but he did not answer. He only lowered his head, and kept running. *
About the Author: Gregory Adams lives and writes in Roslindale, Massachusetts. When not writing, he is furiously trying to make ends meet through odd jobs, freelance writing, and video-game quality assurance.
(c) 2004 Gregory Adams email@example.com
About the Artist: Mike “Warble” Finucane is an artist who works with fantasy art mostly, but can do science fiction, as well. He has been published in Christian Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine, and can do futuristic formats in art. He has also been published in Psychology Art Journals..
(c) 2004 Mike Finucane firstname.lastname@example.org