Two-Fisted Tales

Tales of Mystery and Adventure

All right, Faithful Fiends, how about a four part sword and sorcery tale sure to put the rats up your spine? Framed for murder, a thief enlists the aid of dark powers to see that justice is done. But in this court, even the testimony of the dead may not be enough...

The Promise of Wine

By Peter J. Sanderson
About the author

"Vajna," called the page from outside his door, "the guildmaster will see you now."

Vajna stood up from his chair by the window and looked around for his cloak and the ceremonial dagger which served as a cloak pin that tradition required him to wear for such an audience.

Blast, thought Vajna, the dagger was in the wardrobe, hanging by the gold cord on its sheath. The sheath was there; how could he have misplaced it -- why now? No matter, Bakushja the guildmaster of thieves of Livnoji was not known to stand on ceremony. Vajna grinned. Being the prime candidate for ascension to the office of guildmaster, and Bakushja's favorite, he didn't feel too worried. Still, it would have been better to make a good impression. He closed his door behind him.

He started down the twisting halls and passages of the Livnoji Guildhouse and passed by the many guards, giving the sign and passwords for each new floor until he reached the antechamber of the Guildmaster. The room was small and dimly lit by two braziers heaped with glowing coals that gave a smoky taste to the air and a dull, flickering red hue to the room. The door leading into the office of Bakushja opened slowly and a cloaked figure backed out and bowed into the room. Closing the door, the figure turned and Vajna saw it was Dresh. He smiled at him.

"You're wasting your time, Dresh, old boy," Vajna said venomously. "Bakushja has all but chosen me. You've been caught 'withholding' too many times for your feigned ignorance to save you. Your back has more lash scars than a tree has leaves. One more time and they'll either kick you out of the guild or out of town." Vajna felt a little unnerved when, instead of scowling back at him and scurrying away as Dresh would usually do, he smiled an icy smile and stared directly into his eyes.

" may be surprised to find how things really sit with Bakushja, friend Vaj," he smirked in a way that made Vajna increasingly uncomfortable. "But go and find out for yourself. I think the old man has had a ... change of heart, shall we say." Dresh stroked his neatly trimmed beard and flashed another smile at Vajna before departing up the stairs.

Vajna shook his head. No, Dresh was just trying to make him lose his cool. Perhaps Bakushja would just ask him to perform a particularly risky job to solidify his position of prominence within the guild. It would be an aid to attaining the necessary votes from the elder officers. But still, that was no reason for Dresh to be acting so full of himself. Vajna entered the little room.

More brightly lit by several lamps, this little room served as the functioning office for the guildmaster of thieves. From here, the major heists were initiated and to here, information flowed like many tributaries into a great river.

Along the wall were shelves containing maps, architectural treatises, little pigeonholes filled with sheaves of notes and papers and on the far wall, a carefully drawn map of the city of Livnoji, complete with markings to indicate the sewer lines and any recently made roof-bridges. Little pins marked it showing recent operations and operations to be initiated.

But the pleasant smile and open armed gesture of Bakushja did not greet Vajna this time. Lying back in his chair, his head lolling to one side with his silvery locks dangling, an ever widening patch of red staining his white robes of office, was old Bakushja. Protruding from the center of his chest, inserted to the quillons, was Vajna's ceremonial dagger of office.

"Bakushja!" Vajna yelled, for he was fond of the old guildmaster who had taught him his craft when he was only an urchin. He pressed an ear to the old man's lips to listen for a breath. There was a faint rasp in the old man's throat and a little wheezing gasp escaped his lips.

" sorry I won't g-get to," he coughed and blood welled up out of his mouth and ran down his lips. Vajna suddenly heard Dresh bellow outside the small chamber.

"Murder! Murder! Vajna has slain the Guildmaster! Alarm! Murder!" Dresh shrieked at the top of his lungs.

Bakushja's voice was all but a raspy whisper and Vajna could barely hear what he said as the door burst open. Before he was rudely yanked away by the huge arms of a ceremonial guard and hurled against the wall, he had heard the old man say the name "Lanejznac" as his breath rattled out of him and he spewed up another gout of blood. He had no idea what that was supposed to mean, curse the old man. It was probably the name of some old lover or something...damn, as if that would help either of them.

He looked up from the floor and saw that the little room was now full of people. Standing in a half circle about him were four of the Guildmaster's ceremonial guard, silvery longswords drawn and pointed at him, ready to thrust into his neck if he stirred. Standing behind them was Dresh looking very grave and just outside the door many other thieves peered in.

Three of the guild's officers pushed through the onlookers. Vajna looked down at his hands, which he noticed felt sticky. Bakushja's blood was on them. He had rested his hands on the old man's chest and head while he tried to listen for a breath. He looked down at his tunic and cloak. More blood. Things looked pretty bad. Dresh had planned this well. And the guards arrived quickly enough. Silver had been exchanged for loyalty, Vajna thought. Hopefully not everyone was on the payroll. Hopefully, no officers for they would be pronouncing judgement here.

"There stands the murderous swine," Dresh rasped and pointed at Vajna. "Strike down the murdering pig before--"

"Silence!" barked Gejushvic, the grizzled-bearded Master of the House, the officer who ran the daily operation of the guildhouse and second only to the guildmaster.

"But there he stands red-handed, what more proof do you need!" Dresh whined.

"Not much more proof than this," said Belash, the Master of Operations, smiling and staring straight at Vajna. "I think it's fairly clear what has happened."

"The devil it is! Dresh, you filthy, pale-livered worm! You staged this and killed him yourself," Vajna retorted.

"Listen to the craven, trying to divert his guilt upon me even though he stands with Bakushja's blood staining his tunic--"

"That will be quite enough...from all of you," Kripiniac, the Master of Recruiting, said in a steely tone. "A murder has been done...the suspects must be given a trial and the murderer must be punished in the time-honoured fashion."

"But...ah, my good fellow Kripiniac," Belash said, "is it not clear who has done the killing?"

"Well," said Kripiniac with a flourish, "let's find out...Vajna, did you kill the guildmaster?"

"Of course I didn't," Vajna said in as exasperated a tone as he could manage. "We were dear friends, that is well known by all in the guild. He was dying when I got here...and, Dresh, you were here before me."

"And whose cloak pin was thrust between his ribs?" Dresh spat at Vajna.

"Who among the guards saw my cloak fastened? It was stolen from me this morning...I need not wonder by whom." Vajna replied.

"It is true," said one of the honour guards, "I saw no cloak pin." The other honour guards and stair guards nodded in assent and a few others raised their voices to concur.

"Butterwitted fools!" Dresh shrieked. "He could hide it anywhere on his person to divert suspicion thusly! Look at the facts...look at him...see the blood!"

"Enough!" yelled Kripiniac, smashing his fist on the Guildmaster's desk. Eyes flew to the table when his fist crashed down.

"Kripiniac...look, by Bakushja's hand...he has written something in his own blood," Gejushvic said, pointing at the smear of crimson on one of the parchments that littered the desk.

"Written by the murderer you mean," Dresh sneered.

"You seem awfully eager to see Vajna convicted and executed, Dresh," Gejushvic said. "You are so sure that you will be next choice for guildmaster...come now, we all know what is at stake here. In light of your protestations, it seems that Vajna's words might not be so far fetched. There is no love lost between you and Vaj."

"Vaj?" Belash said acidly. "My, aren't we familiar. Perhaps you are so afraid that Dresh might put an old fool like you out to pasture that you're willing to acquit Vajna before he is even tried."

"Well," said Kripiniac, "things are most unclear now...the word on this page," he held it aloft so that all could see the word although partly smeared, "is Dresh."

"There, you see? He wanted to be sure that what he had promised, to throw his support behind me, would survive any attempts to silence the truth." Dresh looked smugly at Vajna. "He told me that your popularity with the younger thieves was a dangerous thing for the guild, Vajna. He wanted to be sure it was fear, not love, which moved the guild. He knew you were too weak to--"

"Kur blast you!" Vajna roared. "Do you take us all for fools? You have 'withheld' so many times no decent thief would ever follow you! You're practically a traitor to the fact I know of one or two people that would be well inclined to testify that you tipped off the watch in exchange for coin and a pardon on two separate occasions. Bakushja wanted to be sure that his murderer's name would be well known by with his life's blood he penned it out. You killed him, Dresh, you pathetic vermin."

"That will be all. We will convene an assembly and a trial immediately. The crime is treason and murder. You stand accused, Vajna. It will be the will of the guild that decides this, not wagging tongues," Kripiniac said.

Vajna's heart sank. He knew a trial was inevitable but he had hoped that suspicions could be shifted long enough to allow him time to gather support. Even if he were guilty, enough lobbying and promises of "misplaced coin" would vindicate him. But the trial was convened swiftly and a vote came back even more swiftly. The proof against him was obvious and brutally effective. The writing of Dresh's name on the parchment was interpreted unfavourably towards him. He looked at the faces around the audience hall. Only a few were unreadable. The few young thieves that supported him looked bleak or angry. Gejushvic was among his supporters and his old eyes looked watery when the vote was taken and guilty was the verdict.

Dresh looked at Vajna and smirked gleefully and Belash, who sat nearby, mirrored him. Kripiniac looked troubled but stern. The vote was overwhelmingly against him. Dresh had been working at this for a long time. Much coin had been paid out for this victory. They stripped him of all he had and led him to a dark, smelly hole in the deep halls below the guild.

On the following morning, when all the thieves were pulled in from their operations to witness the spectacle, Vajna would be executed, slowly and painfully in as creative a manner as the guild interrogator, Injicvad-Cluj, could devise. His death would also serve to solidify Dresh's power.

Convenient, he mused to himself as he sat on the cold stone floor of his cell. He saw a light flickering from outside the featureless door to his cell and heard murmuring voices and the dull flap-flap of soft booted feet on the flags. Then the sound of rattling keys and his door swung open. It was Dresh and Balash.

"Come to gloat have you?" Vajna said. "Or perhaps rob the guild of an object lesson by slipping a knife in my ribs as you did our good master?"

"I will do my gloating when your flesh is a cold hall for feasting maggots, Vaj," Dresh sneered mockingly.

"Then leave me be."

"I am not totally without mercy, Vajna...I have what I want now and there is nothing you can do to stop me. Nor would I rob the guild of its object lesson. They must see what happens to traitors."

"Then let me loose and I'll wring your neck into a pulp...then I'll force-feed you to your fellow traitor there," he motioned to Belash with his head and rattling his chains, "and we'll call it even." Vajna smiled grimly.

"I think not, dear Vaj. I leave this with you." He placed a small vial on the stone floor within arms reach of Vajna. "We both know under Injicvad-Cluj's gentle ministrations you might live for hours in terrible pain. This will ensure that you will die before morning is out if you take it within the hour. It will spare you much pain."

"And be sure that I am sent speedily on my way to hell, dishonoured and with a liver bursting with poison in Kur's Halls. It is a tender mercy you possess Dresh. I will haunt you." Dresh smiled at him.

"I am a practical man," Dresh said, "I am also thorough. You speech will begin to slur soon after you take morning, you will be capable of unintelligible screaming. Who knows what names you might cry out from pain and desperation. You know too much about my...ah, unsanctioned guild activities."

Click for Part 2

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The Promise of Wine is copyright Peter J. Sanderson. 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!)