An action-packed fantasy adventure in which two misfit partners team up to work a case in a crime-ridden city filled with orcs, humans, elves, dwarves and mages
There were a great many things that Rem loved about his job as a watchwarden in the city of Yenara. First and foremost, he was rarely bored. Even if he did find himself so, he knew, down deep, that that boredom wouldn’t last long. Sooner or later, something somewhere in their ward would go tits up and he and his dwarven partner, Torval, would be called in (or would stumble in) to set it right.
Likewise, there was the sense of secret fellowship—of clandestine knowledge—that came from stalking the streets from sundown to sunrise, existing within and bearing witness to a side of Yenara that most workaday folk would never see, or did not want to: the nocturnal half of the citizenry who plied their trades and sold their wares only after dark, and the certain streets that were, in daylight hours, wholly unremarkable and half forgotten, that came to life only after dusk, supporting activities that would make a brothel-keep blush.
There was the action—sudden, violent, bloody, and sometimes (though Rem hated to admit it), damned bracing. Remgained no pleasure from hurting people, but there was a certain sense of accomplishment—of primitive pride—in knowing that you could hold your own in a row if you had to.
And then, of course, above and beyond all other considerations, there was the fact that, once in a while, he felt that he was doing some genuine good: returning much-needed coin to innocent victims of a robbery or a short con; apprehending a murderer; freeing a stolen or lost child from the clutches of a thieves’ ring or unsavory trafficking band; rescuing terrorized spouses and children from drunken, abusive mates and parents. All of those things and more gave him a feeling of real purpose, pride, and satisfaction.
But then there were incidents like the present one: answering—for the fourth time in five weeks—a call from the neighbors of Geezer Fassler and his wife, Rikka, because the two were trying to kill one another. Again.
Gods, the neighbors cried, they’re killing each other! Come quick, watchwardens, I smell smoke! They’re liable to burn the whole building down! Bless me, it’s grown quiet in there—I fear one’s finally done in the other . . .
Variations on a familiar theme. Rem was certain that Torval, like him, was tempted not to respond at all. To shrug off the cries for aid and carry on with their patrol. To make some idle jest and assume that this bout between Geezer and his belligerent bride would be just as bloody, just as vexing, as the dozens of others they’d responded to in the past.
“It’s pointless,” Rem said to his partner.
The dwarf, Torval, nodded solemnly. “Most likely.”
Rem shook his head. “It’ll be just like always. She won’t charge him, he won’t charge her—”
“I know,” Torval said.“—we arrest them on trivial charges, they pay their fines, and next week, it’s the same bloody business.”
Torval gave a final, curt nod. “Aye, that. And yet . . .”
Rem instantly knew what Torval was suggesting. The one time they failed to answer the call— the one time they dis-missed it all as routine business or reduced it to a jest—that would be the one time it would take a fatal turn. Torval had a little aphorism he offered in those moments when they were faced with hue and cry they’d rather not respond to.
Ours isn’t to judge the call, he would usually say. Ours is just to answer it.
Thankfully, he didn’t say the words now. He didn’t need to.
Rem sighed, nodded, gestured expansively. “Shall we?”
Torval led the way and Rem followed.
Rem knew they’d find a familiar scene upon arrival: Geezer and Rikka, mutually bloodied, one or the other or both armed with whatever hasty implement was at hand—a broken bottle, a frying pan, a bread knife, logs from the fireplace. They’d be shouting at one another, provoking each other with horrible names and curses. And when Rem and Torval tried to intervene, the truculent pair would, inevitably, come to one another’s aid, as though their violent conflicts were some private tryst that watchwarden interference violated the sanctity of.
Oi, now, that’s not right, Geezer might say. We’s just having a rassle, watchwardens! I’ll not have you hauling my ladylove into your drafty dungeons over this, no sirs!
No, no, no, Rikka might say, suddenly donning a mask of sweetness and light when, just moments before, she’d been threatening to make a coin purse of Geezer’s bollock-bag. You misunderstand, lads. Geezer was just a bit pissed—too much brew, you see—and he came home on a bit of a tear. It’s all worked out now, sure as can be. We’re terribly sorry for the upset. Can I offer some victuals for the road? Cooked meself, just an hour or two ago . . .
Rem and Torval had each tried, more than once, to get one or the other to admit to being scared of their partner—fearful for their life and safety—thus obligating an arrest and severe charges that might finally break the vicious cycle. Half the watchwardens of the Fifth could attest to the injuries they’d seen the two wreak upon one another, the mess they’d made of their various rented rooms, the casual passersby who’d been thumped headwise by flying objects intended for the snarling Rikka or her quarrelsome husband. Oh sure, they’d been hauled in for disturbing the peace, property damage, and unintentional battery on strangers, but they always simply got a dressing-down, laid out their coin, then were sent on their way.
Again, again, and again. It made Rem want to vomit.
They heard the commotion when they turned the corner: curses, taunts, iron clanging, wood creaking, the crack of splinters, and the occasional strident crash of broken glass. A large crowd clogged the street before Geezer and Rikka’s residence, a three-story riser capable of housing six different families. Geezer and Rikka’s window, on the second floor, was brightly lit, and the sounds of their conflict spilled into the balmy night, offering a counterpoint to the distant thunder of a coming storm and the idle chatter of the gawkers.
“Move!” Torval barked. “Wardwatch coming through!”
“He’s killing her!” someone said. At that instant, from above, Rem clearly heard Rikka call her beloved Geezer “a gods-damned damp squib if ever there was one, all mouth and no trousers.”
Aemon, the barbed tongue on that woman . . .
“She’s a menace, that one!” an old man in the crowd said as Rem and Torval shouldered through. “Mark my words, if you lot don’t lock her away, we’ll find her baking Geezer in a pie one of these mornings! Just you wait.”
Rem leaned toward Torval. “If only.”
Torval shook his head. “I swear, lad, if either one so much as frowns at me, I’ll put them both on their backs and clap them in irons. We need an end to this.”
“We’re not carrying irons,” Rem pointed out.
Torval shot him a vexed glare. “Don’t be smart. Now, no mollygagging about this time, eh? We haul them in, period. Follow my lead.”
Rem nodded, and they moved through the dark, close little doorway of the block of flats. They passed through a short, stale-smelling vestibule, then mounted the dark stairs toward the second floor. Above, the sounds of the brawl were loud but indistinct, dampened by several layers of wood beams and plaster.
“A fool’s errand,” Rem said as they climbed. “They’ll pay their fines and once more be on their way, as always.”
“Then we need them to threaten someone other than each other,” Torval countered. “Officers of the law, perhaps?”
Rem stopped. Torval was a few stairs above him, looking back over his shoulder. Though the stairwell was dark, Rem thought he could see something like a sly smile on the dwarf ’s broad face. That didn’t give him any confidence in the dwarf ’s scheme.
“You’re not serious?” Rem asked.
Torval turned and kept climbing. “Just wait and see how serious I am.”
When they made the landing, the racket from inside Geezer and Rikka’s apartment assailed them, louder and clearer now.
Clang. Crash. Thump.
“Missed me, you loopy cunt! Why don’t you try again?”
Thump. Crash. Rumble. Groan.
“Ha ha, didn’t miss you that time, did I, you numpty skiver?”
“You daft cow,” Geezer growled slowly. “I’ll make you pay for that. Bleedin’ like a stuck pig . . .” Even through the closed door, they could hear Geezer’s slurring words. He sounded to Rem as if his head had been bashed in, or his mouth was full of gravel. That didn’t bode well. Maybe Rikka had made a killing blow?
Torval stepped forward and kicked in the door. Before he’d passed over the threshold, he had his maul in hand and full command of the situation. Rem slid in behind him, hand on his sword hilt, ready to draw. For the barest instant—before Torval spoke, before Geezer or Rikka could react—Rem took in the chaotic scene before him.
Every bit of furniture in the room, save the little table where they ate their daily meals, was shattered. Several iron and copper frying pans and cookpots lay about. A few shelves, once mounted on the walls, had fallen. Broken crocks of flour, butter, lard, and spices made a colorful, queasy desert out of one far corner. If there was a glass implement—phial, goblet, jar, or wine bottle—still in a single piece, Rem could not see it. There was a terrible smell—piss and shit—emanating from a far corner where a tin chamber pot lay overturned.
And there they stood, like familiar and most unwanted friends: Geezer, blood sheeting down his pockmarked face from a nasty wound on his forehead, clothes disheveled and torn, and Rikka, breasts threatening to fall out of a half-unlaced corset, smeared blood and snot besmirching her lips and chin, one eye blackened and already swelling. The pair of them were not past forty, but they looked as if they’d lived a hundred lifetimes instead of barely one each.
Rikka held a bent iron poker. Geezer brandished a knife.
Why do they do it? Rem wondered, his belly tight with disgust. Why won’t she just turn him over to us? Why won’t he just leave her?
Then the opportunity to assess the scene before them ended. Geezer and Rikka turned toward the kicked-in door and blinked simultaneously, as though awakening from a shared dream.
“Hey, now!” Rikka said. “Don’t go knocking that door about—the landlord’ll make us pay for that!”
“What’s all this?” Geezer snarled, studying Rem and Torval with a bitter, predatory gaze that gave Rem no comfort. He shot a venomous look toward Rikka. “More of your coin-jacks, you filthy slag?”
Rem felt a deep, instinctual offense at that. As if he’d give a wild-eyed mongoose like Rikka the bells of the hour . . .
“Shut it,” Torval suddenly snapped. “Both of you, drop what’s in your hands and don’t say another word. You’re in big trouble this time. Don’t make it worse.”
Geezer, who’d been crouched in a strange defensive stance, now stood to his full height. He was a big man—taller than Rem. With unbelievable bravado, he wiped his hand over his face, clearing away a great deal of the blood covering it and smearing the remainder like war paint. He then flipped back his long, blood-caked forelocks and brandished the bread knife in his hands.
“Trouble,” the big man said. “Why don’t you caper over here, master dwarf, and see what kind of trouble I can give you.”
A strange hissing invaded the world, accompanied by a dull, distant roar. Rem glanced toward the open window of the apartment, directly opposite where he stood. Rain began to fall in sheets, beating hard on the wooden shingles of the apartment building’s roof. Rem wished he were out in it, right now, instead of in here, smelling piss and shit, seconds away from having to defend himself and his partner against this foolish man and his equally foolish wife.
Torval took another step into the room. Rem slid sideward, trying to position himself directly in front of Geezer, who was ahead and on their right. He let his hand close on his sword grip now, to make it clear that he’d draw the blade if need be.
“You two,” Torval said, and Rem thought he heard real sadness in the dwarf’s craggy voice. “How many times are we going to come down here? How many times do we have to haul you before the magistrates?”
“Maybe until you get the message,” Rikka said. “This man and I, we ain’t your problem, watchwarden. It’s just a little domestic spat, that’s all.”
“Aye, that,” Geezer said, offering a genuinely agreeable nod that put Rem in fear for the shared sanity of the two. Moments ago, they’d been trying to kill each other. Now that the authorities were on hand, they were a united front against the interlopers. What sort of fool logic was that?
“Well,” Torval said. “I’m afraid your little domestic spats are too loud, too costly, and too bloody to be left unaddressed. Drop the poker, drop the knife, come with us. That’s your last warning.”
“Last warning,” Geezer said. “You threatening my lady, master dwarf?”
Torval turned his narrowed gaze toward Geezer. “I’m sorry, was that solely your job?”
Geezer took a step forward, raising the knife. “You’d best watch your tongue—”
“Geezer,” Rikka hissed suddenly. Rem studied her. Her blood was settling now. She knew what was happening, what was at stake. She might not like having to interrupt their little dustup, but she didn’t want to end the night in the watchkeep dungeons, either.
Geezer, however, hadn’t come to understand that just yet. He took another step forward, all but ignoring Rem, his hostility directed entirely at Torval.
“Threaten her again,” Geezer said to the dwarf. “Utter a single unkind word and see what happens.”
“Put that knife down,” Torval said flatly, “or the only person in the room to feel its sting will be you.”
Rem half drew his sword, the blade almost sighing as it peeked from its scabbard. Part of him wanted to loose it entirely, but he was afraid that if he did so, he’d set off Geezer. If they could just get him to stop advancing, to drop that knife . . .
Be ready, Rem thought. You might only have an instant. If he moves for Torval, it’s on you to put him down—
“You should go,” Rikka said from across the room. “We’re done now, watchwardens, truly. We’re so very sorry—”
“Shut your cock-sleeve, woman,” Geezer snarled at her. “These two copper-gobbling maggots need a lesson in manners.”
“Are you threatening us?” Torval asked.
“Geezer, stop!” Rikka shouted.
“Bleeding right I’m threatening you!” Geezer growled, then lunged for Torval.
Things happened fast then. Geezer charged Torval, but the dwarf had his maul up quick, swinging it in a broad sideward arc that knocked the bread knife from Geezer’s hand. There was a sickening, wet crack as the blunt metal head of the maul connected with Geezer’s outstretched fist. Rem guessed that every bone in Geezer’s hand shattered with the blow.
Geezer screamed and retreated, yanking his broken hand close. “You half-pint tonker son of a whore!” he roared. He raised his eyes to Torval, wide and white in his sweaty, blood-streaked face, teeth gnashing. “I’ll break you in two for that!”
Rikka was on him then, arms around Geezer’s hunched shoulders. “Stop it!” she hissed. “Stop now, Geezer, love, or this’ ll—”
“Off,” the furious man grunted, and tried to shrug his wife from his shoulders.
“Geezer, love, come on now—”
“Off, I said!” Geezer shouted, and used all the force of his body to throw Rikka clear. Her feet left the floor and she fell backward, screaming as she went. In the next instant, her head connected with the sharp stone edge of their hearth and she was instantly silent. When Rikka’s body hit the floor, it did so without a speck of life in it: rag-doll limp, empty.
Rem instinctively took a step toward the fallen woman, but Geezer was in his path and snarled like a rabid hound.
“Don’t do it, lad!” Torval said. “He’s mad, that one!”
Rem froze, seeing the hate and fury in Geezer’s eyes. He tried to speak to him. “Geezer,” he said, “just look. I think Rikka’s hurt.”
Geezer’s eyes swung back and forth—from Rem to Torval, then back to Rem—before he finally stole a quick glance behind him and saw Rikka lying there. She wasn’t moving. She wasn’t breathing.
“Get up,” Geezer said.
Rikka didn’t respond.
“I said get up, woman!” Geezer shouted, and kicked her nearby foot. Her body shook, but she made no move. Rem guessed she never would again.
Geezer turned now, almost forgetting about Rem and Torval. He still clutched his broken right hand close to his body. Little by little, Rem could see the anger and violence seeping out of his face, like wine draining from a broken skin. Only a blunt, pale shock remained. He stared at Rikka.
“Rikka, lass? What’s going on?”
Rem and Torval exchanged sorrowful glances.
Geezer fell at Rikka’s side. He shook her with his good hand. “Come on, now. Just a bump on the noggin. You’ll be fine . . .”
He tried to pull her up by her corset. Her body sagged limply in her clothes, nothing but flesh and bone now—wholly lifeless, a bundle for the lichyards. Since he had only a single hand and no good grip, Rikka fell to the floor again with a thump. Geezer was left kneeling beside her, staring, mouth working and no words coming out.
Torval took a tentative step forward. “Come on, Geezer. We’ll see to her. Just come over here and calm down—”
Geezer bent over Rikka, held her face in his good hand, and tried to pat her cheek. The gesture was gentle, loving even, and it made Rem feel a terrible pang of sorrow and loss, a barbed arrow that pierced right through the center of him.
“Rikka,” Geezer rasped.
“Geezer,” Torval insisted, “come on now.”
“Rikka!” Geezer shouted, shaking the dead woman who lay before him. Rem could see that a widening puddle of blood was staining the floorboards under Rikka’s mound of disheveled curls. Whether it was a cracked skull or a broken neck or both that had killed her, he couldn’t say . . . but clearly the result had been the same.
Geezer turned on them now. His sorrow was apparent, but something else rose beneath it. That rabid fury that he’d displayed when squaring off with the two of them returned with a vengeance. Rem could see it in his eyes: Geezer finally understood that Rikka was dead, and clearly he held Rem and Torval responsible.
Rem felt his hand tighten on his sword hilt, unbidden.
“You two,” the grieving man spat, tears cutting tracks through the drying blood on his face.
Torval raised his maul. “Stay where you are, Geezer,” the dwarf said quietly.
“You murderers!” Geezer said, shakily regaining his feet. He looked around him, found a shattered bottle, and took it up by its narrow end.
“Torval,” Rem said, knowing what came next. Geezer’s eyes were fixed on the dwarf. The jagged edges of that broken bottle were clearly meant for Torval.
“I’ll have your flayed skin, you bloody stump!” Geezer shouted, and lunged toward Torval.
Rem’s sword cleared its scabbard and flashed in a broad, flat arc. Rem felt steel bite flesh, saw Geezer shrink from the blow and bend double. While Rem’s eyes drank in the sight, his body followed through, almost independent of his conscious mind. He used the momentum of his sideward swing to bring his sword up, point leveled, then drove it forward in an angled downward thrust. The blade bit deep into Geezer’s rib cage on the left side. The drunken man shouted and cursed, then stumbled to the floor, the deep thrust bringing forth a great gush of blood.
The bottle fell from his hands. Rem kicked it clear, resheathed his sword, then rushed to Geezer’s side. He had binding ropes in hand, ready to tie the man and make sure he could do no more damage. Gods, there was so much blood, more pouring out every second!
“You killed me,” Geezer said, blinking as though his vision was failing him. He tried to slap Rem’s hands away, but Rem rebuffed his resistance easily. Geezer’s strength fled fast. It was staining the floor all around them.“We warned you,” Rem said, trying to keep from vomiting. He wanted to comfort the man, to reassure him, but he heard only anger and reproach in his own voice. “It’s not our fault you wouldn’t listen!”
He gave up trying to tie Geezer’s hands—what was he thinking?—then struggled instead to yank up the man’s blood-soaked shirt and get at the wound. It wasn’t large, but it was deep: his thrust had passed between the fourth and fifth ribs, just below Geezer’s left nipple. As Rem watched, dark-red blood pumped forth rhythmically, spilling over Geezer’s prone frame, turning his once-white shirt into a dark-red funeral shroud.
“Rikka,” Geezer moaned, sense leaving him as his blood pressure dropped. “Rikka, love, talk to me.”
Torval stood over the two of them, staring down, face a mask of pity and regret. “You’ll see her soon, Geezer. Don’t you worry . . .” Torval then hurried across the room to the window. He let out three long, shrill bleats of his watch warden’s whistle, then began shouting. “Somebody get a surgeon! Move! We’ve got a dying man up here!”
Rem looked around for anything he could find. He seized upon a kitchen rag encrusted with old stew stains and stinking of sour beer. He snatched up the rag, made a wad of it, and pressed it hard against Geezer’s flowing wound.
“Aemon,” someone breathed.
Rem looked to the doorway. Emacca and Tembryna—two of their female comrades from the wardwatch—had arrived. They stood just outside the door, as though they were loath to enter the room and let the bad fortune swirling there settle on them. Tembryna’s soft young face and great green eyes betrayed horror and sadness at the ugly scene before her. Emacca, born to a hard life on the Tregga Steppe and rarely inclined to displays of emotion, simply stared, stoic and silent.
“Oh, this is just a fine way to end it,” Geezer said sadly. As his life ebbed out of him, his sanity was returning. “Bleeding out like this, done in by you lot . . .”
“Calm down,” Rem said, trying to get the fidgeting Geezer to hold still. “We’ve called for someone. We’ll not let you die tonight.”
“Says the man who killed me,” Geezer retorted.
“Well, we warned you!” Rem shouted back, suddenly losing his patience. “How many times, Geezer? How many? Beating her? Threatening us? Making a mess of . . . of . . . of everything! You’re a fool, and if this is the way you end, you’ve only yourself to blame!” Immediately Rem regretted his words. They seemed cruel, somehow, no matter how true they might be.
“Rikka, lass,” the dying man said. “I can’t see her. Where is she?”
Torval was at Rem’s side now, lifting the rag Rem held just long enough to study Geezer’s wound. The dwarf looked to Rem and gave a slight, almost imperceptible shake of his head. He wasn’t going to make it.
“Curse you,” Geezer wheezed. “Curse you both. I call down Hyryn’s wrath . . . beg for Serath’s snare . . .”
“Go on,” Torval said dismissively. “Blame us, you sod. This is all on you.”
Geezer’s face was so white now, his eyelids drooping. “May you be broken on Ghagar’s table,” he whispered. “Swallowed by Meimis . . . snatched by Kraet . . .”
Rem stared, forcing himself to bear witness as the man died. His eyes were half shut now, face white as ash, expression immobile. He stared upward, into the night sky, as if he could see through the ceiling, through the roof, beyond the rain and clouds to the hidden, distant stars . . .
“We warned him,” Rem said. “Bloody fools—we warned them both.”Torval’s hand fell on Rem’s shoulder. “No regrets, lad. You did your duty.”
Geezer’s last breath escaped him like a shuddering cough.
Rem stood and backed away. He moved to the window and stared out into the night, wishing he could be out in that rain right now, its inexorable fall washing all the blood and the guilt and the pointless waste right off him . . .