Two-Fisted Tales

Tales of Mystery and Adventure



And yet again, Pulp and Dagger positively bubbles over with giddy pride to present another two-fisted tale from the magical mind and prolific pen of "Long" John Outram! Jubal, self styled "King of the Cockroaches", has his thieving eye set on the fabulous jade heart kept in the Temple of Shai-Gheeson. But he'd better watch his back, because he isn't alone, and there are far too many...

 

Shadows Under Darkened Spires

by "Long" John Outram
About the author


 JUBAL MADE HIS WAY QUICKLY through shadowed alleyways, his light buskins making hardly a sound as he skipped cat-like on the balls of his feet. It was late. Though sounds of late revelry could be heard drifting from the Market Quarter, where the taverns did not close for dusk or dawn, Temple Street was quiet at this time of night, those worshippers still in attendance keeping quiet vigil through the dark hours.

Even so, Jubal stayed to the back routes, the quiet routes. He wore loose trousers and jacket of black cloth, held in place by a sash of wound silk through which was thrust a long, wavy bladed dagger. On his head went a hood of the same black cloth, pulled close so that only a narrow slit allowed him to see out. The sling bag over his shoulder was black too, and even the blade of his dagger had been stained with burned oil so that no glint would betray him.

Sometimes the self-styled "King of the Cockroaches" preferred not to be seen.

Dark spires were silhouetted against the starlit sky, and one, crusted with gargoyles and leaning at a suspect angle, belonged to the temple of Shai-Gheeson the Unknowable. That was Jubal's goal, and he crept on stealthy feet towards it.  

A drunken beggar, sleeping in a filthy doorway, stirred and mumbled in his sleep. Jubal halted and waited. The man went quiet, and Jubal continued. He had no wish to be seen -- no wish to be recognised -- in this Quarter on this night. The man might well be a down-at-heel artisan or a stranger from out of town, in which case let him sleep on. But many of the beggars on Desil's streets were members of the Street Kingdom that ruled this city after dark, the Roaches' Realm, the Thieves' Guild of Desil. And Jubal, dirksman extraordinary and master-thief, was that which they hated worse than any watchman, any city guardsman, any magistrate -- he was a "cock-roach", an outsider, an unlicensed thief who flouted their laws and refused to pay his dues to their Master. Jubal had spent years perfecting his art, and defying the authorities was hardly a challenge any more. Now he tested his skills against the real experts in crime -- the criminals themselves. The risks, of course, were greater.

The doors behind the Temple of Shai-Gheeson were locked and heavily barred. No-one came this way, and the doorway was guarded neither by Temple guards nor the beggars who gathered for alms outside all of the major temples. Rather than force the door, Jubal unwound the sash to its full length and cast it over one of the lower gargoyles. The strong silk easily bore his weight as he drew himself up to balance on a narrow ledge of dressed stone. He counted across three windows from the left, then used his dagger to prise open the shutter latches. As promised, the small chamber within was empty. With hardly a sound Jubal drew himself through.  

He knew almost nothing of Shai-Gheeson the Unknowable (which was hardly surprising) but a chance encounter with a temple girl called Miranna had taught him what little he did know. Firstly, whatever properties Shai-Gheeson might or might not have, he was a god with a heart -- specifically, a large piece of green jade, shaped like a bull's heart and slightly bigger, which was kept in a secret chamber within the temple. Secondly, that this secret chamber was out of bounds to all but the highest ranking priests -- so no temple guards would be allowed within. Thirdly, that the Festival of the Flower Maidens -- which had begun the previous day -- required the participation of Shai-Gheeson's priests (and the aforementioned Flower Maidens) in demanding rituals and libations that lasted all day and all night. Jubal reasoned that even the hardiest of priests would now be sleeping off such exertions.

Fourthly -- and perhaps most importantly -- Jubal had learned from Miranna that Shai-Gheeson's jade heart was worth a great deal of money to the priests of a rival cult. Why they wanted it was not clear. Many miraculous claims were made for the relics that adorned Desil's numerous temples, but Jubal suspected most of these were fraudulent -- in any case, it seemed unlikely that Shai-Gheeson, unknowable as he was, would make any magical powers available to the followers of a rival. More likely, these rivals would point out that a god unable to protect his own heart from theft or destruction would offer little protection to his followers, thus discrediting the cult.

Jubal sighed as he descended the darkened stairs carefully and silently. Normally it did not pay to meddle in the affairs of deities or priests. On this occasion, of course, it promised to pay exceptionally well. Even so, Jubal felt a vague sense of unease, and a suspicion that he would not have agreed to take on this job but for the lithe, long-limbed Miranna and her charms. And that, Jubal knew, was the worst reason a master-thief could have for doing anything.

The great doorway of the temple, studded with brass and decorated as befitted the sanctum of an important deity, gave way easily to Jubal's touch. There was little he hated more than ill-tended gates and doors, that creaked and groaned or even refused to give way without the prompting of shoulder or boot. Household and temple servants should really apply themselves better to their duties. But this door barely whispered as it gently opened upon a huge chamber of stone walkways and staircases, dimly lit by guttering candles, watched over by the looming statue of the god above the jewel-crusted altar. Glittering in the flickering light, Jubal could see the jade heart, as large or even larger than rumour had made it.

Whether Jubal truly possessed a sixth sense, as he sometimes believed, or whether the sharpness of his five senses combined with his sharp wits to warn him of any danger, he knew as soon as he started towards the altar that something was wrong. He was not alone in the chamber. Someone -- or something -- was moving rapidly towards him.

***


A curse unvoiced escaped his lips. Of course, no man other than a priest was allowed to enter this sanctum. That was not to say it was unguarded. He knew that some cults considered the presence of a dog -- or a lion, or a leopard, or even a giant serpent -- less defiling than the presence of a human guard, in spite of the little offerings that such guardians inevitably left upon the temple floor. His hand went to his knife-hilt. As steadily as he could, he kept on toward the altar.  

At least he could hear the clink of a chain as the creature -- whatever it might be -- moved through the shadows. Guard-dogs were the bane of thieves everywhere, but Jubal knew at least a dozen strategies for dealing with them. A lone dog was a nuisance at worst, especially when chained.

The long snout appeared first, around the edge of a stone casement, nose twitching cautiously. Two brown eyes glittered like the jewels on the altar as it saw Jubal creeping forward, knife ready. It yawned, displaying huge canine fangs of which the direst hound could have been proud. Jubal felt his blood run cold. As its body came into view, he realised this was no hound.

He guessed that it was some kind of baboon. He had seen them in the temple gardens of the east, where the priests considered them sacred and fed them fruit from bowls of gold and sliver. The dog-like face mounted before a thick, mane-like ruff of fur, the long, thin arms with dextrous hands reaching out from a stocky, muscular body, these were like the baboons he had seen. But he had never seen one of this size before. It was almost as tall as a man, easily as heavy and probably five times as strong. And as if mocking man, the ape was clad in bronze armour like a temple guard. An iron chain depended from its left vambrace. It gazed at him with a kind of gentle curiosity in its brown eyes, its intelligence evident as it weighed him up. He knew as he watched that this was neither man nor beast in truth, but something between the two, and he was glad that it was chained.

Then suddenly its expression changed, and Jubal realised his error. Recognising the thief as an intruder and a foe, the man-beast snarled and hurled itself forward. The iron chain curled out, revealing a spiked ball at its loose end -- not a restraint after all, but a lethal weapon. Jubal barely threw himself back in time as it rushed past. His instinctive counter-thrust was turned by the man-beast's armour, and then they faced each other again, the creature snarling and baring its enormous fangs, Jubal considering his best options. In spite of the heavy armour, the man-beast was quick and agile, making flight impossible. With its long chain-mace, it would have the advantage of reach over him, but if he closed it would rend him apart with claws and fangs. He could not bargain with it, bluff it or bribe it. Jubal, master-thief, was fast running out of ideas!

Running out, but not run out yet

Fending off the beast as best he could with the long knife in his left hand, he searched with the fingertips of his right hand under the seam of his sleeve. The distraction was almost fatal -- ducking under the flailing chain-mace, he felt the man-beast's claws clutch at his hood. For a moment he was caught in its clutches, and could almost feel the huge fangs slicing through his neck and crushing his vertebrae. Then there was a tearing sound as he pulled away in desperation, leaving the creature clutching a ruined scrap of black cloth. The man-beast looked at the scrap for a second, and Jubal seized the chance to change the knife to his right hand and quickly fished a small paper packet from his sleeve with the left. The man-beast looked up and Jubal unleashed the contents in its face -- an ounce of ground pimento.  

The man-beast recoiled with a spluttering cough, shaking its maned head as if it could throw off the stinging powder that left it choked and blinded. Jubal seized the opportunity to attack. His left hand gripped the monster's collar. The jaws opened wide, threatening with its huge fangs again, and mustering all his courage Jubal thrust his dagger right-handed into the throat of the beast.

***


He came to himself sitting with his back against the altar, panting for breath. He felt as he had sat there an age, that the fight with the baboon-like beast had taken place a long time ago. But when he looked over, the creature was still twitching a little where it lay, bright red blood still gushed from the wound he had made. He realised that it was still less than a minute since he had entered the chamber.

Once he was sure the beast was dead -- its movements ceased, its blood flowed sluggishly -- he retrieved his dagger. The chamber was silent. There was no indication that the noise of their struggle had reached the guards outside or the sleeping priests upstairs. Jubal turned his attention to the statue, the altar and the heart of Shai-Gheeson that lay upon it.  

The statue was crudely made, a large, squarish figure with a plain and angular face carved with no _expression or distinguishing features. Perhaps that was appropriate for an Unknowable god. Jubal certainly felt no awe in the presence of the deity, no sense that Shai-Gheeson cared one way or another about the theft of his jade heart. As for the jade, it was indeed a remarkable piece, very large and a rich green in colour, flecked with golden-red, although very roughly shaped. Jubal's eye for detail picked out at once the stones clustered around the edge of the altar, which were small but much more finely cut. There was garnet, spinel and topaz, and other stones perhaps worth less, set into a smooth mortar that proved soft and yielding when he set his dagger to it. Once possessed of these lesser jewels, he turned his attention back to the jade heart. He slipped the mouth of his sling bag around the heavy stone and lifted it gently from its resting place.

A loud wailing cry went up as soon as Shai-Gheeson's heart left the altar stone. For a fleeting moment overtaken by superstitious folly, Jubal looked up at the figure of the god, half expecting to see its face turned on him in wrath as it called for help. But it was just a statue after all -- the jade heart had been attached to some mechanical alarm, and he had been careless enough to have lifted it without checking for such things.  

Without further hesitation, Jubal headed for the door through which he had come, just as he heard the gates on the far side swinging open. The gate guards came crashing through in their bronze armour, bill-hooks in their hands. Down the stairs came three or four bleary eyed priests, one at least carrying a ceremonial mace. Jubal did not wait. With a cry of "Death to the unbelievers!" he hurled himself forward. The assassin's cry was enough to make the priests hesitate, thinking themselves rather than the temple under attack, and he threw himself at a shuttered window, crashing through onto the street.

He landed in a heap, rolled, rolled again and somehow ended up on his feet. The drunk laying in the doorway raised himself on one elbow and shouted something unintelligible, but Jubal ignored him and kept running.  

He expected the guards to abandon the chase. Several blocks further on he rested for a moment, and heard the sound of bronze armour rattling not far behind. They had not given up, after all. There were three of them and they were running well, with their bill-hooks carried high so as not to impede them. He stifled a curse. He was not such a fool as to contemplate a fight with three armed warriors.

Two options lay open -- speed or stealth. Normally Jubal would be tempted to run, but his pursuers were clearly athletic types, and he was already weary from his fight with the man-beast. At the next turn he slipped through a narrow passageway and waited, breathing as quietly as he could. The guardsmen stopped, casting around for clues. One mumbled something and began to wander away. Jubal let out a barely audible sigh -- not barely enough. Seeing the narrow way before him, the leading guardsman threw down his bill-hook, and Jubal heard the sound of a sword whistling from its scabbard. He fled without waiting to see if he had been seen, knowing that his desperate footsteps would lead his pursuers on.  

A shadow jumped up out of the darkness and his heart leapt into his mouth. His sharp eyes and quick reactions saved him from certain death as he almost blundered into a handcart stretched across the darkened alleyway. With no time to stop or turn he threw himself forwards and upwards, clawing the air for a little more height, somehow jumping clear. He landed feet first, skidded in the mud, slipped, recovered and stumbled on. Behind him the sound of loud curses and bronze clattering into bronze told him the onrushing guards had not negotiated the obstacle so cleverly.  

He did not wait to see how quickly they recovered from the collision. His buskins raced away, not caring what direction they took him so long as he put as much distance between himself and the guardsmen.

***


An hour later found Jubal in the courtyard of the Dastillarian Palace, beyond the Founder's Bridge. An early lord of the city had built this fine manse in an exclusive suburb on the west side of the Desoril River to avoid the crowds of the growing city. But this low lying area had sunk into the dank, malarial swamps. The fine houses of the suburb had crumbled into ruins, and now only thieves and vagabonds prowled its tangled, rubble-strewn by-ways.

He sheltered under the arch of what was once a grand portal, wondering if the moisture in the air should be termed a heavy dew or a light drizzle. Dawn was still some way off, and if this was not the darkest hour of the night it was probably the coolest.

Two tall figures swathed in black cloaks, one slender, one broad, entered the courtyard, carrying a bullseye lantern. They stopped by the weed-choked fountain and cast about them, looking for something in the shadows around them. Jubal knew that in the darkness he was virtually invisible. The bulkier man set down a heavy bag which gave out the distinctive chink of gold coins.

"Gentlemen," said Jubal loudly. The lean man turned the beam of the lantern on him, momentarily blinding him. "Enough of that, Dekken Ta'arn. You have my gold. I have what you want. Let us trade."

"You have the Heart -- truly?" asked Dekken Ta'arn, the lean man, lowering the shutter again. "And was there any trouble?"

"Nothing a master thief could not handle," replied Jubal coolly. "They know it is stolen -- that is to be expected. They do not know who stole it, or why. Let it stay that way."

He took a few steps forward, holding out the sling-bag and the heavy jade within. Even in this dim light he fancied he could see a gleam of avarice in the young priest's eye.

"Tell your man to stand away, and I will bring you the jade," he said. "Look inside, satisfy yourself that it is truly the Heart of Shai-Gheeson. Then I will take my gold and be gone."

"As you wish," said Dekken Ta'arn with a smile.  

He gestured with his free hand and the hulking guard stepped back a few paces. Jubal did not wait. His instinct for danger and betrayal was rarely wrong. He swung the heavy bag and knocked Dekken Ta'arn back into the slimy water of the fountain. Then he ran for the bridge, even as the bodyguard shouted and five shadows emerged from the ruins with drawn swords. Though nearly spent from all the fighting and running that night, Jubal managed to reach the bridge ahead of them. Three more cloaked figures barred his way at the far end. They too had swords.  

It was too dark to make out faces, but Jubal could guess their identities -- Valin Cut-throat, Rolf the Noose, Kestrol, all enforcers for the Thieves' Guild. Jubal stopped running. He was too tired even to reach for his knife.

"Greedy, Dekken," he said. "You weren't content with the Heart -- you had to sell me as well."

"A clever bargain on my part," returned the corrupt priest. "I get the Heart for nothing, and the gratitude of the Guild for turning in a cock-roach."

Valin and Rolf came forward, swords gleaming. Jubal appeared to slump in resignation -- then a sudden leap took him to the walled side of the bridge, where he swayed precariously on the edge. He dangled the sling-bag over the sluggish water.

"Careful, now!" he warned. "One step closer and your precious Heart goes into the river."  

Dekken Ta'arn chuckled: "You don't get it, do you? I don't need the Heart -- I just need it to be stolen. It serves its purpose just as well at the bottom of the Desoril. The same goes for your useless carcass."

"Let's end it now," said Valin gruffly, lunging with his sword.

Jubal stepped back and his heel found empty air. He tipped backwards and over the edge of the bridge. A moment later they heard the splash.

Valin shone a lantern on one side of water, Dekken Ta'arn on the other. A few bubbles rose to the surface, but there was no sign of Jubal. After five minutes had passed, they were satisfied.

"We can drag the river for the jade tomorrow," said Dekken Ta'arn. "A shame to lose such a piece."

"If you find his body," replied Valin, "you can leave it there."

***


Miranna the Temple-Girl admired the play of the sunlight on the garnets that sparkled on her naked brown skin. She had never seen such fine ones before -- but she knew their worth was enough to take her far away from the city she had come to despise, and the temple hierarchy that oppressed her. Her lover smiled and sprinkled another handful of precious stones across her beautiful body.

"A pity about the jade," she mused. "I should have liked to have seen it."

"It made a hell of a splash," he smiled.

She laughed softly: "A good job I warned you not to trust that snake Dekken Ta'arn."

"A good job I had my escape route planned out beforehand -- and a good job Valin did not think to look under the bridge. A good job too that I thought to put the rubies in my pockets, and not in my sling-bag."

"You are truly the cleverest of thieves," she said, with only a hint of irony. "Desil will be too hot for you to show your face again."

"It's best I move on," Jubal agreed. "What about you? A girl of your talents is wasted as a temple dancer -- and I could use some company on my travels?"

Miranna smiled coyly: "Perhaps, Jubal. See what you can do to persuade me."

Jubal grinned and determined to do his best. 


The End.



 
 

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Shadows Under Darkened Spires is copyright by John Outram. It may not be copied or used for any commercial purpose except for short excerpts used for reviews. (Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want to read it!)