Two-Fisted Tales

Tales of Mystery and Adventure




The Promise of Wine
(Part 2 of 4)

By Peter J. Sanderson
About the author


"Bribery, withholding, extortion, your deal with the guild in Cakovec--"

Dresh cut Vajna off. "That will do. Belash is already completely in my confidence. I leave you with this to toast my election as the new guildmaster. Farewell, Vaj."

"I'll keep some seats warm for you at Kur's table," Vajna said trying to speak with bravado but finding his voice shaking as the door shut with a dull thud and a click of locks.

Poison. That bastard. For all he knew it was probably also a nerve stimulant that would make each little cut flare through his brain. Still, he thought, it would be likely strong enough to do what Dresh said. If he had to die, better it were brief. And the sooner he took it, the less time he would spend under the interrogator's blade.

Briefly, Vajna felt a twinge of guilt. It would be cowardly. To the devil with talk of bravery or cowardice. He stretched out his hand and picked up the vial. It felt cold and heavy in his hand. He would swallow it whole and then regurgitate it as he lay on the table, spitting the contents into the face of the interrogator. Such bravado would be remembered for a long time. It was an old filcher's trick but it might get him a song. He held the vial up and put it to his lips. He tipped his head back and dropped the vial into his mouth.

"Vaj, are you awake?" came the hiss from beyond the door. Vajna was still holding the vial between his lips where he had seized it when he heard the whisper crack the sepulchral silence of the cell.

"Gejushvic...you old fool," Vajna hissed back after taking the vial in his hands, "what are you doing here? Dresh will have you killed if he finds out--"

"Shush, you young pup, you're being rescued! I'm dead anyway because I showed my hand in supporting you. Besides, no one will know unless they check and find your cell is empty. I came in by a secret way that only Bakushja and I was aware of. We can slip out unseen."

"What is the state of things with the guild," Vajna whispered as the old master thief slipped into his cell and began picking the lock on his manacles. "Is there any chance of putting an end to this?"

"Yes," grinned Gejushvic, "if you can raise the dead or tell the dagger to speak of its user. The guild is split down the middle...when they find you gone it will be open war. The ones that Dresh paid off will strike hard and fast. In fact, I have heard from my sources that word has been leaked out to the watch. If we are divided against each other, the watch will pay hired killers to sweep in and finish us off."

"The city council will never stand for such a thing. They have too many members taking from our purse," Vajna said, rubbing his wrists as the older thief lowered the chains to the floor.

"They have decided it's worth the risk. They have the full cooperation with the merchant's guild. If we are taken amidst the confusion of our own internal strife they can sweep us aside without any worry of future extortion...any major thefts would be almost impossible; the guild would go totally underground -- it would be war. Unless you can stop it. Come quickly, we must hurry out the passage before anyone notices."

"If I can stop it," Vajna hissed as the two thieves quietly padded down the narrow, dark passage, feeling their way ahead through the gloom. "I would need to make the dead speak for such a thing to be. By the way, where does this rat-hole lead to?"

"Heh heh," the old thief wheezed, "you'll smell it before we get there."

"Not the sewers."

"Yep."

"Damn."

Soon, the two thieves emerged in a large enough area that Vajna could hear his breathing echo back at him. The smell was foul and reeked of rotting organic matter. As Gejushvic's little rushlight bloomed into orange flame, Vajna could see the bricked tunnels slithering away to the left and right, a river of black sludge running down its length. A few chittering rats scampered out of the light and looked back, their eyes, little red points of fire in the shadows. Gejushvic motioned for Vajna to follow him to the right, down the low sewer shaft. Both men had to stoop to move down the passage. After a few minutes of shuffling down the tunnel, they reached an intersection where another sewer shaft crossed the first and at the point where the two met, another shaft reached upwards towards the level of the street. A series of rungs were fixed into this upward shaft. Vajna looked up and could see the twilight sky through a small grating that topped the shaft about fifteen feet up.

"Well, my young friend, here is where we part company," Gejushvic said. "I must go and rally our friends to prepare for the worst. Up there's The Shambles. I suggest you go to look for a hiding place until this blows over, then head for Cuprijavor or Cakovec."

"You are a good friend, Gejushvic, I won't forget this...and should we live--"

"Should we live, Vaj, then you will owe me a big pile of money to retire on. Farewell, my friend."

"Wait...just before you leave...Bakushja mumbled a name before he passed on. It was Lanejznac. Do you have any idea if it was a friend or a lover or anything? It might be important."

"Lover? Gods I hope not," Gejushvic chuckled; "Lanejznac was a filthy bugger...greasy looking and the smell...probably not a lover."

"Who was he?" Vajna asked, tying back his long black hair with a strip of cloth he had torn from his pant leg.

"Well, he was this little fellow we knew back in Djogavi's days as Guildmaster. We were just young pups like you, just made master thieves and out to pull a little job on the side. Things were pretty wide open in those days and as long as we didn't withhold on a sanctioned job we could do just about whatever we wanted to...good old days."

"Indeed," Vajna replied hoping the anecdote wouldn't last too long and expecting to hear a clatter of booted feet coming behind him.

"Well, we met this little fellow, gods he was ugly, and we fell into drinking and dicing with him. We took him for what little he had but we all drank a great deal and had a good time. Anyway, this little scat tells us he is studying under Baldaram the Necromancer and that he's been sent to retrieve something from the catacombs under the city for his master. Then he told us something that set us to laughing. He was...if you can believe it...scared of the dark. Can you believe it? And to top it off, he was afraid of closed in spaces. And him a necromancer -- a tomb robber! But he was middle-aged by then...he must be dead by now. Anyway, he was -- how did he put it -- 'mortally offended' by our laughing. He was just about to turn us into toads or some such thing -- or so he said...he was hammered -- when his master comes in. Kur's hairy balls but that fellow was a devil! Anyway, he pins the little twerp's ears back for being out drinking instead of getting to work and this Baldaram fellow, he tells us sweet-as-you-please that he apologizes for any inconvenience his servant caused us. It was just one of those recollections men have near death when the mind starts to wander. Pay it no mind."

"Where would someone find such a necromancer?" Vajna asked, growing impatient with the old man.

"I tell you, pay it no mind. Even if you happened to find such a one, and even if he could use sorcery to aid you, you've got nothing to offer him that could get him to help you. Lanejznac is dead or an old fool by now and--"

"Where?" Vajna cut him off.

"If you want to waste your time, go look in the cemetery. In fact, that's as good a place for you to hide as any. If you're not afraid of the dead, you could probably hide in an old mausoleum or some such. Get used to it...we'll probably be joining the dead soon," Gejushvic said glumly.

"You always fill me with good cheer, friend. I'll meet you tomorrow, here if I can."

"Farewell, Vaj," the old thief said as he vanished into the dark sewer tunnel.

Vajna scrambled up the rungs that led up the shaft. The grating was already loose and in a moment he managed to scramble out into the alleyway. The broken-down tenements, known as The Shambles, loomed over him shutting out what little light there was from the sunset. He heard footfalls coming down the alley and he slipped into the space between two buildings.

A figure crept slowly out of the shadows. It was a Guildsman. He was slinking around with his short sword and poniard, drawn from their sheaths, glinting faintly in the half-light-half-shadow that veiled the alley. Vajna waited until he had passed the gap between the buildings where he was hidden before he slowly released his held breath. He could feel a faint breeze chilling the sweat on the small of his back to icy coolness. He slipped out into the alley and leapt on the thief's back, taking him by surprise and driving his face into the cobbles. The thief made a weak groaning sound and lay still. When he was unconscious, Vajna stripped him of his clothes and weapons and dragged him back to the sewer shaft.

"He would never have passed his master's test," Vajna murmured to himself. "Bad ears," and he let the unconscious thief drop down the sewer shaft where he crashed into the bottom with a sickening crunch.

"That's that...now to the cemetery to get a spot picked out for myself," Vajna said to himself and chuckled.

It would either be for hiding or a very long sleep, so it had best be a good spot with southern exposure, he mused. The sun was down and the sky was dark and overcast. If there was a moon, it was showing no light through the thick, low bank of clouds that hung over the streets of Livnoji. Making his way through the alleyways, Vajna came to the edge of Gallows Square where the low stone wall of the Livnoji Cemetery bordered it on its northern side. The square was empty and quiet. The townsfolk would have long since left the kafanas and ceased the nightly korza, the stroll about the streets and exchange of gossip that was the last remnant of the pre-literate Bjel culture, which all who could participated in. The street vendors had closed up their stalls and now only the wharf pubs would be doing any brisk business.

A few lights shone out from the multi-storied buildings and shops that formed a ring around the old Market Square where, to this day, public executions were still carried out. 'Bound for Blackluck Lane' was still used euphemistically for the journey down the final road and referred to the narrow street, leading northwest from Saint Ivo's Basilica where criminals were shriven of their sins before making a final procession to the gallows.

Vajna bolted, vaulting over the low wall, his lithe frame arcing swiftly and neatly over the stones. The cemetery was the final resting place for the few who could afford to pay the council of Livnoji the huge sums required as "death fees" which were really another exorbitant way of taxing folk. The poor buried their dead outside the walls and only visited them when they had other business. There was still a head tax at the gate and making a visit to your dear departed would get you no reprieve from the sneering, fat gatekeepers.

Vajna drew the short sword and poniard from his belt and began slinking behind the larger mausoleums at the north end of the cemetery picking his way through the overgrown vegetation and monuments to the wealthy dead of Livnoji. Knights, clergymen, wizards and merchants were buried within these walls. It was good pickings for a freelance thief who had no fear of the dead. Good for a thief who was swift enough to avoid the many traps the families of the departed had placed to prevent the despoiling of funerary clothing and the often expensive jewels and artifacts taken by the deceased on their final journey.

Stopping to take air and plan his next move, Vajna listened intently. He was certain he had heard a man cry out a few moments ago. Now he seemed to hear voices. Perhaps it was the wind. No. That was definitely cursing coming from a few tombs over.

This would be worth a look. It might be some thief emerging successfully from a tomb. Vajna grinned. He might have to leave the city and such a fellow might be "persuaded" to provide him with a stake with which to make his travels much more pleasant.

Click for Part 3


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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!)