As an afterthought, he fished out a second groat and pitched it after the first, adding a plea for stamina and luck in the endeavours he had planned for the dog watches. He left the half-noble safely in place. He was going to need every last coin he had earned on this last commission, if past experience at Ruttik's house was any guide.
Whistling happily, thoroughly enjoying his good fortune, the tranquil beauty of the elven city, and the cool, pleasant winds tumbling off the forests and fields, the man turned west on Blackbanners Ride, following the slope of the hill downwards towards the high street. He cast a casual, appraising eye over the shops; the good weather, unusual for this time of year, had enticed the merchants out onto the street, and all manner of wares were displayed for the benefit of passers-by.
He saw nothing unexpected; decades of travel, trade and occasional buccaneering along the southern coasts of the elf-realm had given him a thorough knowledge of what sorts of things were produced, and where. In Novaposticum, for example, he expected to find colourful silks, fine crystal, elaborately detailed jewellery (often incorporating the shells of molluscs that made it up the Lymphus delta and into the harbour), rare scented woods, and rustic country fashions. Nothing coarse or unrefined, and nothing particularly special. Nothing out of the ordinary. No surprises.
He didn't mind. He hadn't come to the southeast quarter of the city looking for surprises. Nor for jewellery, nor silks. Not empty ones, at any rate.
At the base of the hill he drew up sharply. At his feet, running north and south, was
Glancing casually up and down the street, he turned the corner and strode north along Winterwood. A few paces beyond the end of the stone fence he turned to the right, ducking between two of the morbannons and following a half-hidden path of silver-gray flagstones. This wound dizzyingly between tree trunks and around dense bushes, eventually depositing him at the rear of the stone manor. Three steps led up to a heavy door of brassbound oak, and he leapt up them, driven by anticipation.
He laid his right palm flat against the door, choosing a spot where the rough finish of the wood had been worn smooth by repeated pressure. Leaning close, he cleared his throat, and said, "Vita brevis, amor lunga."
For a moment he was worried that the password had been changed. His heart leapt into his throat...and he relaxed again when he heard a muted clacking. An instant later, the door swung inward, and a cloud of warm air wafted outward, heavy with the smell of wine and wood-smoke and spice. And something more; something primal.
"Introire,dominus. Exceptum Nymphasaltus."
He stepped through the portal, remembering to duck his head; though arched in the centre to accommodate the sons of Esu, the doors in this house were lower than he was used to back home. Indeed, it was like being aboard ship - in this one way, if in no other.
The lighting in the vestibule was as dim as he remembered it, and when the door was closed behind him, he was temporarily blinded. He kept a hand on his cutlass hilt while his eyes adjusted. He had never been mishandled here before; but he hadn't lived a long and delightful life by being careless.
"Morusa! It is good to see you in my house again, my friend!"
The man blinked rapidly, willing his vision to adapt more rapidly to the low light. "I know that voice," he replied, his own at least an octave lower than that which had addressed him. "Ave, ears! It's good to be back."
Morusa felt arms around his ribs. He let fall his sword-hilt and returned the embrace. By the time the other had released him and stepped back, his sun-blinded orbs were able to make out features: an elf, tall and slender, perhaps three-quarters his own height, with the characteristic black hair and green eyes of the Third House. The elf - his old friend, Ruttik - was dressed in stylish comfort, sporting a vest of heavy brocade over a long silk gown and what appeared to be slippers. A silk and velvet cloak was slung casually over one shoulder. He looked like a man caught half-way between the theatre and the bath.
Morusa took a step back, looking the fellow up and down. "Damn you!" he exclaimed. "You haven't aged a day! Aren't you ever going to wrinkle up? Even if only to keep me company?"
The elf shrugged. "How much wrinkling do you expect? You were here only a few months ago."
Morusa burst out laughing. "Have you lost your mind, you fool? It's been three years since I last set foot in this city!"
"Really?" Ruttik affected an air of puzzlement. "How odd. I'd've sworn you were here during the Penance."
"It was during the Penance," Morusa chuckled, shaking his head in disbelief, "but three years ago. By the balls of Bardan! You folk drive me mad!"
"Your grandsire introduced us," Ruttik reminded his visitor. "Remember? He brought you here as a stripling lad. First-timer! You can't blame me if I take the longer view." Eyeing his guest's dusty visage, he asked, "Drink?"
A few moments later they were seated in an opulent drawing room, the sailor smacking his lips with appreciation. The wine in this house...well, Ruttik had always kept a peerless cellar.
"Adequate?" the elf smiled.
"Are you joking? It's excellent. As always. Although to be perfectly frank," Morusa scowled, "I don't have much of a palate left after six months of dried sausage, hard-tack and grog."
"Six months?" Ruttik raised an eyebrow. "That's rather a lengthy cruise, isn't it?"
"Pa shaka," the sailor snorted. "Can't complain though. It was my idea. Paid off nicely, too."
He lost the thread of the conversation for a moment as a very pretty red-head undulated through the room, clad in a thin shift of scarlet silk that concealed everything, while leaving nothing to the imagination.
His eyes followed her until she left the room. When she was gone, he glanced back at Ruttik. "Heya! Hîarsk, ka?"
The elf shook his head. "Third House. Bleach, cochineal for dye, and high heels," he replied with a wink. "A great trick for the more robust and less comely of our native lasses. Makes the most of girls with broad shoulders, irregular features, off-colour hair, odd eyes, or bad skin. Customers looking for a walk on the wild side think they're getting something unusual."
"Looks pretty real to me," Morusa murmured, leaning back to keep the girl under his eyes.
Ruttik shrugged. "We're good at what we do, and we aim to please."
“Hiarsk hardly qualifies as ‘wild’, though,” the sailor snorted.
“Not for you or for me, maybe,” the elf shrugged. “But for one of my folk with a taste for some forbidden fruit…” He kissed his fingers ostentatiously. “Just the thing.”
"Still, faking it seems a little...I dunno. Dishonest?" Morusa said, pursing his lips.
" 'Dishonest'?" Ruttik grinned. "Perductoris est! I’m a pimp, old friend. You want honesty, find a priest.” He took a sip of wine, then added, “Come to think of it, better make it a paladin. They never seem to show, whereas I’ve had more than a few priests in here over the years."
"No paladins?" Morusa asked, surprised. "What, never?"
"Not my sort of trade," the elf grinned. "The holy-rollers - the true ones, at least - they like things above-board. Straight-up transaction: drop by after vespers, in-and-out, and back in time for matins. The odd Champion shows his face at the Starling every now and then, or so I've heard. Thymbra caters to that sort of taste. But never in here." He took another pull at his glass and dropped a salacious wink. "Must be my unsavoury reputation."
“Here’s to priests, then. At least they've got good taste.” The sailor tipped his glass toward his host in a salute, but his eyes wandered to the doorway where the redhead had disappeared. "I didn't recognize her. She's new?"
"If it's really been three years since your last visit, old friend," the elf replied, sniffing his glass with an air of contentment, "then they're almost all new. There's a high turnover rate in this business, you know."
Morusa nodded. "I'd heard you’d rotated your stock. Word gets 'round. So...you got anything special right now?"
Ruttik grinned narrowly, showing his teeth. One of the canines gleamed dully; Morusa knew that it was a gold tooth. It was reputed to be poison-filled. "Depends on what you mean by 'special'."
The elf shrugged. "Nothing special about that, sailor-boy. I've always got a few blackhairs. Low caste, of course. Tradesfolk. Weavers, dyers and what-not. Farmers, drovers, soap-boilers' daughters. Nothing especially interesting."
"Not to you, maybe," Morusa huffed. "Different for me and my boys. Not too many sons of Esu ever get to taste a genuine piece of Third-House tail." He smiled. “You wouldn’t need bleach and dye to get my lads to take a run at one of your kind, ears. Don't matter how broad their shoulders are!”
"We can set something up, if you like," Ruttik offered. "I’ve got a few right now, and I can get more." He grinned. "I can always get more. But I thought you were here on your own account."
"Gotta think of the lads first," the sailor replied with a shrug. "Morale’s my lookout, and they did well by me this past six-month. But you’re right, we can talk about it later. What else have you got?"
“Third House? Or the others?”
“Yes,” Morusa grinned.
Ruttik scratched a cheek and took another pull at his wine glass. “If it’s black’n’green blue-bloods you’re after, there’s a local lady – upper caste – who comes in from time to time. Always in disguise. Stays for a few days, and takes on all comers.”
The sailor’s eyebrows rose. “Really? Upper caste, you say? Not Twelve-blood, surely?”
“I should be so lucky,” Ruttik rolled his eyes. “No, but still, she’s something special. Beautiful, and tough as a hobgoblin's hangnails. No limits, either. Hard keeping up with her.”
“You’ve tried her out, then?”
“Me?” the elf snorted. “Not hardly. But I’ve watched. Instructive, that. She should give lessons.” He winked. “Wouldn’t touch her myself, though. She’s a risk-taker. One of these days her lifemate’s going to find out. When he does, I’ll be in enough trouble for having having hosted her little liaisons without having to fight a duel, or talk my way out of a violation of the Codex in the Margrave's court.”
“Why does she do it?” Morusa asked, curious. “If she's high-born then it can’t be the coin, surely?”
“Dunno,” Ruttik shrugged. Morusa smiled to himself; the elf tended to mimic his customers' idioms. It was, he knew, a sales technique. “Bored with manor life, I think. That’s the problem. No telling when she’ll get the yen for some action; she comes in at her own good pleasure. Might not be the thing for you. I take it you’re on a schedule, as usual?”
Morusa nodded unhappily. “Gotta sail tomorrow, on the evening flood. It’s tonight or nothing. What’ve you got in-house?”
“The spicier, the better,” the sailor winked.
Ruttik pursed his lips, regarding his old friend candidly. “How much did you feel like spending?”
Morusa smiled widely and patted his purse. It looked heavy, and gave off a deep, comforting clink. “Sky’s the limit, ears. That’s what the last six-month was about. Spent most of it cruising off Asheilagr, waiting for the right prize, and found it: a courier sloop carrying coin and arms from the churchmen to their turncoat lickspittles in the Imperium. Sold the arms in Vejborg, and kept the coin.”
"And did the Vendicar a service, too," Ruttik muttered snidely.
"Altid Ekhan!" Morus laughed, raising his glass.
“How much did you take in?” Ruttik asked, feigning mild disinterest.
“Enough to buy your little palace here,” Morusa replied, “knock it down, and rebuild it out of marble. I shit in a gold pot, ears. So don’t worry about the price.”
“Congratulations,” the elf murmured. He scratched his cheek again. “You’re looking to celebrate, then? With something special?”
“You still have a thing for the torvae?”
The sailor’s eyes widened. “You’ve got one?”
“Nope. I’ve got three. Follow me.” He put his wine glass down and levered himself out of his chair. Morusa, an anticipatory grin spreading across his grizzled cheeks, followed.
“I don’t know,” he said moments later, sounding dubious. “They don’t seem…well…like torvae, if you know what I mean. They look the part, sure, but...”
The sailor was glancing through a barred window set into a heavy oak door. Beyond the door lay a lavishly-decorated room. The walls were hung with tapestries, the floor covered in thick, exquisite carpets. The centrepiece was a stragulum – a broad, densely-stuffed mattress strewn with light blankets and linens that looked like they could do with a wash.
Kneeling on the mattress, empty-eyed and no cleaner than the bed-linens, was a pair of elf-women. They were definitely not of the Third House. Neither came close to five feet in height, and each had hazel-coloured eyes and mousy brown-blonde hair gathered into complex braids.
A breath of air wafted through the small port, bringing with it the smell of incense, sweat, candle wax...and something animal. Morusa’s nostrils flared involuntarily.
Ruttik's eyes missed nothing. “What do you think?” he asked.
The sailor frowned. “Not as...as tasty as I remembered. Hey, you two!” he called through the window. “Stand up!”
“They don’t speak the traveling tongue,” Ruttik observed. “Just our speech - a bit of it, anyway - and their own.” Turning toward the window, he snapped, “Adsurgo!”
The women climbed immediately to their feet and stood shoulder-to-shoulder, facing the door. They were clad in elaborate sleeping robes, well-worn and inadequately laundered. Both kept their eyes down, staring at their feet.
Morusa regarded them for a long moment.
Ruttik waited patiently. At length, though, he asked, “So?”
The sailor tugged at an ear. “How much?”
Morusa turned incredulous eyes on his host. “Are you serious? Twenty-five sovereigns, for that ratty pair?”
“Twenty-five each,” Ruttik specified.
“Fifty? You’re mad!”
The elf shrugged. “You’re the one with the heavy purse and an itch to scratch.”
“I could buy a girl back in Norkhan for that!”
“Not a torva,” Ruttik said smoothly. “How about forty, then? For the pair?”
Morusa shot another glance through the window, and sighed again. “They’re not…damn it!”
“What’s wrong, my friend?” the elf asked.
The sailor threw up his hands. “The last time you had one of these, she was…oh, I don’t know. Feistier!”
“You mean Diam Kabut,” the elf smiled.
“Exactly!” Morusa exclaimed. “Diam! I remember her. By the Seven, she was something special. Loads of spirit. You charged me fifty sovereigns, and I paid happily!”
“That’s because she was vero torva,” Ruttik explained. “A true daughter of the forest. A woman of one of the Wilder tribes, from the north. Rusa Rakut, the Red Deer Tribe, as I recall. Vero. Not citified, like these two here.”
“I remember you telling me that.” He still had no idea what 'vero torva' meant...but he remembered Diam Kabut. He felt himself warming at the thought of the diminutive, graceful creature. “Whatever happened to her?”
“Bought by a nobleman, a year or so ago,” Ruttik replied. “From the capital, actually. As a gift for his lifemate.” He smiled broadly. “A hundred-score aureae. Gods, that was a good day!”
Morusa frowned. “That’s a lot of money for a ladies’ maid.”
Ruttik shook his head. “The vero torvae make poor domestics, old friend. Can’t make a bed or fold a sheet, and like to knife you in your sleep. Low caste Third House're a lot safer. Anyway, that’s not what his lifemate wanted her for.” He dropped an elaborate wink.
"Heya!" The sailor expostulated. “Well, lucky him, I suppose.” He glanced into the room again, thinking hard.
“Pity the little rusa’s gone,” he added after a moment. “I’d’ve paid fifty aureae for another run at her. No question.”
“I have another one,” Ruttik said easily.
Morusa rounded on him. “Another torva? From the tribes? Really?”
"Not tribal. This one's a clanswoman."
"Clans, tribes," Morusa shrugged. "What's the difference?"
Ruttik pursed his lips. "Not much difference, really, I suppose." He eyed his guest narrowly for a long moment. Then he added, “She's pretty fresh, too. Only got her in a month ago.”
The sailor found himself grinning uncontrollably. “A fresh one? I madh! Where's she from?”
“No idea,” the elf replied. “Not around here. Most of the clans spend their time outside the Homeland anyway. According to the sania who brought her in, she was alone."
Ruttik shrugged. "Could be. But believe me, she's something special.”
Morusa tugged at an earring. "Expensive?"
"Oh, yes." Ruttik smiled thinly; his guest’s interest was manifestly obvious. “So…you want to go take a look?”
“She’s not here?”
Ruttik shook his head. “Downstairs, with the other exotics. Good reason for that, as you'll see. Shall we? You’ll have to leave your sword and dagger here,” he warned. “Security, you know.”
Morusa grinned. “No problem. Let’s go!”
The sailor felt his heart thudding with anticipation. If the new one was anything like that little rusa had been…
The exotic section of Ruttik's house was reached via a hidden staircase that led down into the cellar. Despite being no less opulently furnished than the rest of the manor, the cellar felt closer, more confined. The heavy stone walls, wood-clad and draped with tapestries and hangings, deadened sound. The smell of incense and perfume was heavier here, due in part to the poor air circulation, and in part to the need to mask the odour of mildew and other, less pleasant things.
The stairwell debouched onto a long hallway of dark, carved wood, lit by smokeless torches. Morusa’s feet sank into thick, expensive carpeting. “Where away?” he asked.
Ruttik pointed. “End of the hall.”
As they walked, the sailor cast an appraising eye at each of the half-dozen doors opening to left and right. “What else’ve you got down here?”
Ruttik shrugged. “Half of them are empty right now. Not much call for the exotic stuff, except when the quality's in town. I usually bring in a few extras when a princely party's out on chevauchée. Never know what they'll want, so it's best to be prepared. Costs me a little extra, but the pay-off...” He whistled for emphasis.
"I can just imagine."
Ruttik nodded toward the first of the doors. “I keep that one empty, for that high-caste lady I told you about before. All dollied up and pretty, like a castle bower. It’s worth holding it for her; she doesn't drop in often, but she earns me a fortune when she does. All profit, you see.”
“What d’ye mean?”
“She doesn’t charge,” Ruttik grinned nastily. “Doesn't care about the coin. But I do.”
Morusa laughed. “Good deal for you, I guess. How about that one?” He pointed at another door.
The sailor shuddered. “Gah. You’re joking, right?”
“You know what they say,” the elf shrugged. “ ‘It’s only unnatural if it’s impossible’. And you’d be amazed at what’s possible.”
“I suppose,” Morusa said dubiously. He gave the door a wide berth. “Anything else you want to tell me?”
Ruttik grinned. “See the shiny frame around that door?”
The sailor nodded. "What is it?"
“Really? What’s in there?”
“Gods!” Morusa nearly leapt out of his boots. “A vampire? Are you mad?”
“What can I say? Some like it cold.” The elf patted his friend on the shoulder. “Relax. Silver-rimmed door, silver-laced furnishings and a silver collar around her pretty throat. It’s perfectly safe. Except for the biting, but some of my customers see that as one of the attractions, so long as things don't go too far.” He tapped a tooth with a fingernail, waggling his eyebrows suggestively. “After all, what’re priests for, right?”
"Still...it seems a little dangerous," Morusa muttered, eyeing the door nervously.
The elf shrugged. “Not so long as you’re reasonably robust and you take precautions. Actually," he added in a clinical tone, "she’s only partially transformed. What the priests call semilamiata. Not as deadly as the true beast. Her condition’s curable.”
“So why don’t you cure her?” Morusa asked, astonished.
“Who’d want her then? " Ruttick asked coldly. "I might, though, someday. Once she’s earned enough.
The sailor stared.
“What?" the elf chuckled. "She’s got time. It’s not like she’s getting any older.”
Morusa shook his head. “I suppose I ought to be shocked, but I guess I’m not. Nothing about you folk shocks me anymore.” A sudden thought struck him. “You still got a nymph?”
The elf nodded. “Have to. Couldn’t very well keep calling it ‘The Dancing Nymph’ if I didn’t, could I?” He shook his head. “Should've picked a different name for the place. Too late now."
"Is it as bad as all that?" the sailor asked, surprised. "I thought that nymphs were supposed to be the cream of the fey folk."
"In the woods, maybe. Here she’s a loss-leader. Most customers come in because of the name, then take one look at her and pass on to something else.”
“What?” Morusa had never tried the nymph out during his previous visits. Despite the reputation of the fey as consummately sensual beings, non-Kindred had never interested him. “What’s the problem with her?”
“They don’t do well in captivity,” the elf sighed. “I suppose that’s the kindest way to put it.”
Morusa’s nose wrinkled at that. “Can I see?”
Ruttik pursed his lips, looking distressed. “Do you really want to? Away from the forest, they sort of…waste away. It's a little pathetic, really. I have to have'em tattooed with cold iron to damp down their powers, and it's like a slow poison to them. I need to find a new one every six-month or so. This one's just about due for...er...replacement. Trust me, she’d be a big disappointment.”
Morusa frowned. “Why keep her, then, if they go bad like that?”
"I just explained that, didn't I? Besides," he added clinically, "some of my regulars like the fey, and don’t especially mind how rough they look. Got a half-orc that comes in once a month to take a run at her. Personal thing, I guess.” He shivered slightly. “Always gotta have a few healing potions handy for those days.”
“Ugh,” the sailor grunted. “That’s a little disgusting, isn’t it?”
“Worse than goblin triplets?” Ruttik asked with raised eyebrows. “You don’t last long in this business without a strong stomach, my friend.”
They reached the last door on the hall. It looked even stronger than the others, bound about with heavy iron plaques, and studded with pointed nails. The hinge-pins were as thick as Morusa’s thumb. In addition to the keyed lock, the door was secured by a heavy iron bar sunk into the stone on either side of the frame.
"Here we are," Ruttik said.
Unlike the other doors, this one had a metal device of some sort built into the wall next to it. “What’s that?” the sailor asked.
“You’ll see. You ready?” the elf asked with a wink.
Morusa shrugged a little too nonchalantly. “Sure.”
His host nodded and opened the portal in the wooden door. Morusa peered through it.
The room that lay behind the door was nothing like the others. For all intents and purposes, it was a cell. The walls were bare stone, and the ceiling, a good twelve feet overhead, consisted of planks over oak beams thicker than the sailor’s thigh.
The room held a single occupant. A woman, by all appearances a Wilder Elf, lay sprawled on the floor. Apart from her garb, she looked not dissimilar to the two torvae Ruttik had shown Morusa upstairs. She had the same tangled, brown-blonde hair, although hers was more heavily braided, with beads of bone, stone, silver, gold and glass worked into the mess. There were no silks here; the prisoner was clad only in what appeared to be tribal garb. A collection of feathered and beaded necklaces, decorated with what looked like teeth, depended from her neck, and a simple loincloth of soft leather hung from her hips. Both were worn and filthy. Her arms and legs were bare. From the sailor’s vantage point, he could see that her limbs were covered with a network of intricate tattoos depicting all manner of fluid, mottled shapes.
Apart from the prisoner's tribal regalia, her only adornment, so far as he could tell, was a collar of heavy steel fixed around her neck, attached to a chain leading up to a pulley set into the centre of the ceiling. “What’s with the anchor cable?” the sailor asked, surprised.
“She’s a tough one,” Ruttik replied, smiling. “A lot easier to handle if we keep her restrained. For feeding, cleaning and so forth.”
Morusa shot the elf a disbelieving glance. “Are you serious?” he asked. “She’s not even a hundredweight. What, do you hire nothing but panty-waists and schoolchildren to do your chores?”
Ruttik pursed his lips. “I’m not joking. She’s vero torva, my friend. Straight from the wild. A true daughter of Istravenya. You sure you want to tackle that?”
"Someday you'll have to tell me what the hells 'vero torva' means," Morusa said absently.
"Not today. Some other time." Morusa turned back to the window. “Let me take a look at her.”
Ruttik nodded. He touched part of the mechanism on the wall, and a lever folded out. This he spun dextrously. There was a muted clanking, and the chain began to retract toward the ceiling.
The woman had been observing the two men silently through slitted eyelids. At the first hint of noise from the chain mechanism, her eyes opened. Morusa could see that they were deep brown, like those of her distant cousins upstairs. He could also see a stark difference in what lay behind them – something bright and animated. The movement revealed something else, too; unlike those cousins, the woman’s body, though noticeably feminine, rippled with corded muscles.
She was striking. He could see it, now. Her cheeks and forehead bore echoes of the tattoos that covered her limbs. They enhanced her beauty, lending a feline elegance to her features, rather than diminishing or concealing them.
As the chain retracted, she sat up with a fluid grace that made him swallow hard. She climbed to her feet and stretched, rolling her shoulders and wrists as if trying to work the kinks out of them. Glancing toward the door, she caught his eye…and smiled. Teeth glittered in the darkness.
“She’s fresh, you say?” Morusa asked without taking his gaze off her.
There was a telltale quaver in his voice. Ruttik smirked. “Yes. As I said, I only got her a month since. Only five customers so far.”
“Why so few?” the sailor asked, surprised.
“She’s expensive,” the elf replied. “Very expensive. Not many feel like paying my price.”
Down to it at last, Morusa thought. “What is your price?”
Morusa turned to stare at his host. “Five hundred aureae? Are you insane? I could buy a whole harem for that!”
“Of Norkhan dockyard whores, maybe. Not vero torvae,” Ruttik snorted. “Anyway, that’s the figure. You don’t want to pay it, you can always pick a different girl.”
The sailor turned back to the window, studying the creature beyond it. She was on her toes now, holding tightly on to the collar, and grimacing as it pressed against her throat. “I don’t want a different girl,” he muttered. "How much to buy her outright?"
"Not for sale," the elf laughed.
"Everything's for sale in this country," the sailor growled. "Name a price."
"Very well. Two-score thousand."
Morusa hawked and spat. "She's worth more than my ship, is she?"
"That's what she's worth to me, old friend," Ruttik replied, grinning. "You need to decide what she's worth to you." Is it possible? he wondered. Could the human have that kind of coin?
His palms started to itch. He decided to push a little. "You had a profitable cruise, my friend; you said so yourself," Ruttik crooned. "A long time at sea. You deserve a treat. Yes?"
The sailor stared at the girl. "I didn't have that good a six-month. Hells, the Imperium didn't have that good a sixmonth! But...I suppose an hour or so..."
Ruttik smiled broadly. He’d won, and he knew it. “Then,” he said reasonably, “open that bulging purse and dig out the coin.”
The sailor hesitated. “What’s her name?” he asked, playing for time, trying to decide.
“No idea,” the elf shrugged. “She won't say. But the two upstairs…I put her in with them, when I first got her, and they called her ‘pemburu’."
"Pemburu Pertana, actually," Ruttik said. "So that’s what I call her.”
“What's it mean?”
“ ‘First Hunter’.” The elf frowned. “The other two girls…when they saw her, they knelt and put their foreheads on her feet. Looked terrified when they were doing it."
"Why?" Morusa asked.
"Again, no idea. Some sort of torva tradition, I suppose.”
“Maybe she’s royalty,” Morusa snorted.
“Wilder elf royalty?” Ruttik laughed aloud. “I wish. I'd charge more. No, there's no such thing, my friend. They’re animals.”
There was something in host’s tone that made Morusa look at him sharply. “That’s a little harsh, isn’t it? I mean, they’re elves too, aren’t they? Like you?”
“They’re nothing like me,” Ruttik snapped, showing a flash of irritation for the first time. “The Third House is descended of Tîor and Dîor. The blood of the Holy Mother, and of Hara the Wise, flows in our veins. These…creatures…” he nodded toward the cell. “They’re savages. They haven’t grown or changed since the Age of Making. An inferior breed. Below even humans in the tabulae.”
Ruttik bit his tongue. He hadn’t meant to broach so sensitive and delicate a subject. Not to a non-elf. Certainly not to a son of Esu. “The tabulae condignae,” he said slowly.
“ ‘Lists of the worthy’?” Morusa translated, frowning. “What the hells is that supposed to mean?”
Ruttik sighed. Especially not to a son of Esu with so ready a command of the fair speech. “They’re the master lists, maintained by some of the clergy in Astrapratum,” he replied uneasily, “that rank all living things in the world, from greatest to least, most noble to most base, in order of how they stand in our estimation.”
Some of the clergy was a deliberate misstatement. While Ruttik felt strongly sympathetic towards the philosophy and the goals of the Lustroares Lustrum, he did not feel like trying to explain them to an Ekhani corsair. Not when there was a deal potentially worth hundreds of aureae mouldering on the table.
The sailor grinned. “Lists must be pretty long.”
“Well,” Ruttik replied, relieved that his guest was treating his indiscretion as a joke, “yes, I suppose they are.” Time to change the subject, he thought. “Day’s wearing on, old friend. So, do you want her? Or do we go back upstairs?”
Morusa looked back at the girl and sighed heavily. “No chance of a discount, I suppose?”
The elf regarded him evenly, then glanced at the bulging bag hanging at the man’s side. He opened his mouth as if to speak, then closed it again.
The sailor was not so besotted with the girl that he missed that clue. “What?” he asked. “What were you going to say?”
Ruttik pursed his lips. “I was going to suggest that, if you want to save a few coins,” he said slowly, “and you’re feeling adventurous, you could…well, you could forego protection.”
Morusa blinked. “What do you mean by that?”
The elf sighed. “As I said, she’s vero torva. She’s a clanswoman, and she’s a little...well, wild. She did quite a number on the first customer that tried her out. He’s a local noble, and it caused me no end of trouble. Didn’t want that to become a regular problem, so I struck a deal with a skald I know in town. Fellow after my own heart. Whenever somebody wants to take a run at her, and has the coin to spare, I offer to call him over so he can subdue her first.”
“Subdue her? How?” Morusa asked, curious.
“Hallitsevat Sukulaiskansojemme. It’s a spell. He uses the enchantment to make her more…well, compliant, I suppose, is the best word. More tractable.” The elf shrugged. “Best thing is, he works the spell for only half price."
"Generous of him,” the sailor grunted. “Why?"
"He likes to watch.”
“Figures," Morusa grunted. "Freak." His eyebrows drew together. "How much do I save, if I pass on your friend’s kind offices?”
“Half,” the elf shrugged.
"So...two hundred and fifty aureae?"
“Yes. But I don’t recommend it," Ruttik added, looking serious. "Last four clients all paid the extra two-fifty for the spell, once I told them what happened to the first fellow.”
The sailor whistled appreciatively. “That feisty, is she?”
“She is. That chain's not there for decoration, you know.”
“But,” Morusa grinned, “they was all Third House, right?”
“What’s that got to do with it?” Ruttik bristled.
“Cowards and limp-wrists,” the sailor chuckled. “No guts, you lot. Maybe she’d give a scrawny lad like you some trouble. Big, strapping buck like me, though...I think I can handle her.”
Ruttik blinked. When he spoke again, his tone was warmer, more unctuous. “Well and good, then, old friend,” he said, nodding. “One last time - shall I summon my musical friend? Or do you want to roll the dice?”
“Pfft. You heard me. Day I can’t handle a little chit like that, you can have my cod, ‘cause I won’t be needing it anymore.”
“Done,” Ruttik replied. He held out his hand, and the sailor gripped it perfunctorily, without taking his eyes off the elf-woman behind the door. “But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
The elf fished a heavy iron key out of his pouch, unlocked both latches, and slid the iron bar back.
“You don’t want payment in advance?” Morusa asked, surprised.
“We can settle up afterwards,” his host replied with a narrow grin. "We're old mates, you and I. I trust you won't leave me...ah...hanging."
“How about a nicer room?” Morusa asked.
“Without the spell, she stays here,” Ruttik said firmly. “Take it or leave it.”
The door opened with a squeal of rusty hinges. Inside, the wooden planks, and even the plaques of iron covering them, were festooned with deep scratches. Eyeing the damage, Morusa swore. “By the Holy Mother's honey-pot! What’d you keep in here before? A tiger?”
"Something like that." Ruttik laughed uneasily. “You won’t mind if I lock up behind you, will you?”
“Whatever.” He turned back to the Wilder Elf woman. She was eyeing him narrowly, balanced on the balls of her feet, fingers still clenched on the chain. “And lose that collar, would you? I can’t very well take her standing up.”
“Not a chance,” the elf replied. “It’s there for a reason, like I said. But don’t worry, I’ll let out plenty of slack.”
“Not very conducive to romance,” Morusa groused. “But all right." Glancing around the bare room, he added, “You couldn’t manage a blanket, I suppose? Those stones look cold.”
Ruttik sighed. Then he unclasped the silk and velvet cloak draped around his shoulders and handed it to his guest. “Take this. No charge for cleaning.”
“Much obliged." Morusa half-bowed. "Better lock me in, now, little man. Don’t come back until things’re quiet again. And no peeking!”
Nodding, the elf closed the door, turned the latches and secured the bolt. Then he spun the windlass crank, letting out a dozen paces of chain.
He took a quick glance through the door-window. Morusa was walking slowly toward his prize, the cloak over one arm, rubbing his palms together in anticipation. “Get ready, my dove,” he crooned, loosening the laces of his tunic. “It’s you and me, now, for the next few sticks.”
The Wilder Elf girl, lithe and graceful, eased her neck and shoulders, and flexed her fingers and toes. There was no expression on her face as her would-be paramour approached.
No; that wasn’t entirely true, Ruttik thought. Her lips were curved in a slight smile.
Ruttik shook his head as he closed and latched the window-gate. While he had a great many vices, to be sure, voyeurism wasn’t one of them. In his opinion, everyone was entitled to a modicum of privacy while indulging their appetites. Especially at so intimate a moment.
The high-pitched, desperately agonized screaming began almost immediately. Ruttik drew a small, razor-sharp knife from his pouch, leaned against the wall, and began trimming his fingernails.
After the shrieking, the howls and the moans had died away - a matter of no more than a few minutes - the elf began counting slowly. When he reached ten-score, he spun the windlass handle a dozen turns to the right, unlocked the latches, withdrew the bar, and opened the door.
The girl was back in the centre of the room, standing a-tiptoe, breathing heavily and holding tightly to the collar to keep the pressure off her windpipe. Her face, throat and torso were smeared with gore, and her hands were blood-drenched to the elbows. Blood soaked her braids, stained her loincloth, ran down her legs, and puddled at her feet.
Ruttik waved happily at her; she snarled back at him. Her tattoos seemed preternaturally bright in the dim light from the hallway. As always, he looked askance at her pronounced incisors, her long, lethal-looking claws. And as always, he avoided looking at her eyes. The glaring yellow slits with their black, vertical pupils seemed to glow in the darkness. The twin points of light were fixed on him, tracking him like a target. He had no doubt what would happen if she ever managed to escape her bonds.
He looked the girl over quickly to ensure that she was uninjured – she was – and still secure. Then he bent to examine his guest’s remains. It was an unpleasant but necessary task; there was always the possibility that she had left Morusa alive, as she had done with her first gentleman caller, and that Ruttik would be forced to finish the job himself.
No danger of that today, he thought, gulping back a sudden mouthful of bile. The girl had been especially thorough this time. The man's throat, and most of his viscera, had been torn out. The blood pooled an inch deep near the body.
He hurried through the rest of his inspection, ensuring that the man’s eyes – well, the one eye that was left, anyway – was closed. Morusa, after all, had been a loyal customer, if not precisely a friend. Ruttik didn’t have friends. In his business, he couldn’t afford them.
His cloak, he noted without any sense of surprise, had absorbed the massive pool of blood like a sponge, and was thoroughly ruined. He shrugged mentally; had it been one of his favourites, he would never have offered it to the human in the first place. With the bounty from this afternoon’s work, he could buy a better cloak. Or a hundred.
That thought reminded him of the money. He bent to the corpse again, retrieved Morusa’s bulging purse, wiped it on one of the less gory corners of his ruined garment, and opened it. He prodded the contents with a finger and grinned; in addition to hundreds of aureae, Zaran crowns, and Ekhani sovereigns, the pouch contained dozens of Dwarven hardsilver doubleweights. There were even a few rings, a necklace of sorts, and other oddments mixed in with the loot.
Morusa hadn’t lied; he’d clearly had a run of good luck. Up until today, at least.
Out of habit, Ruttik patted the corpse down professionally, retrieving a long, narrow stiletto from the right boot-top. Then he stood, brushed the dust from his robe and tucked the cords of the pouch under his belt.
He smiled pleasantly at the Wilder Elf girl, noting that her eyes were brown again, and her teeth and fingernails had returned to their normal proportions. “Well done, my dear,” he said, applauding lightly. “You’re one of the best investments I’ve ever made.”
“Kaupunkia rota, olet seuraava” the girl hissed, glaring at him. “Sina olet liha olla tuhlattu!”
Ruttik grinned. “Threaten me all you like, little darling. If you could’ve broken that chain, you’d’ve done it already.
“For this,” he added, nodding at the corpse, “I think I owe you some decent provender, and maybe a bath." He sniffed fastidiously, and the girl snarled. "Definitely a bath," he amended. "You're a little fragrant for my taste."
He favoured her with a sneer. "I’d offer you some civilized clothing, too, if I didn’t think you’d wipe your backside with it.”
The girl was still hissing under her breath. Ruttik let the smile drop. “Or,” he continued frostily, “I could just leave you bloody, give the lever out there another spin, and let you dangle until your manners improve. What do you prefer?”
The girl snarled and spat at him. The bloody sputum struck the breast of his robe, and he cursed in irritation. Animals! He thought briefly about giving her a slap, but then reconsidered. He didn’t want to get within arms’ reach of her. Not just now. Later, perhaps.
I’ll leave her some company instead, he thought. Turning on his heel, he left the room, secured the door behind him, and spun the windlass lever half a turn to the right. He smiled sourly as choking noises issued from the window. As an afterthought, he closed the observation portal in the door, cutting off the light from the hallway, and leaving the girl alone in the dark with Morusa’s eviscerated, stiffening corpse.
That'll teach her. Maybe I’ll just let the miserable chit hang there all night.
He thought about sending a servant down to drag the man's body out of the cell in a few hours, then decided that he didn't really care all that much. For all he knew about torvae habits, they might well consider humans a delicacy. Maybe if she were hungry enough, it would keep her happy for the next few days.
The woman locked her fingers into the collar, taking her weight on her arms, struggling to keep the pressure on her throat from strangling her. She could do so for a while, but not for very long. Her jailer had retracted the chain until only the very tips of her toes touched the floor. There was a remedy for that; she had used it before. But while she could sustain it for a lot longer than she could hang from her biceps, she couldn't do so forever. If she lost consciousness while employing it, she would fall and be finished.
That, oddly, was her worst fear in this horrible place. She could not touch the green here; could neither see, nor smell, nor feel the pulse of kesatuan. It was like losing a limb, or even her heart. She could not draw strength from the great river of life that sustained all things, not when she was cut off from it like this.
She was alone, with only the darkness, her own strength and skill, and the barest hints of the flux to aid her. These had not sufficed to preserve her from the dishonourable intentions of the men whom her blackhair captor had allowed into her cell. The first she had dealt with appropriately; he might have lived, had her captor not cut his throat. The others, though...some foul magic had been used to subvert her will. Another mind had grappled with and overcome her own, a violation of the self as violently intimate and profoundly soiling as the violation of her flesh that had followed.
Her one consolation was that, when she had recovered from the arcane domination to which she had been subjected, she could still smell the stink of her attackers on her body. She knew them, now, knew their scents as intimately as she knew the scents of oak trees and roe-deer. She knew that she could find them, all of them, if only she could escape from this horrid place. That was what she lived for now; that single, blazing thought.
Her arms were weakening, and her breath was coming in gasps now. Despite the darkness, enough light seeped into the cell from beneath the door to inform her that her vision was greying. Coloured spots began to dance before her eyes. She had to move.
Taking a tighter grip on the collar, she brought her knees up to her chest; then, flexing her biceps and tightening the muscles of her midriff, she flipped upside down. Head towards the floor, she wrapped her legs around the chain and slowly loosened her grip on the collar.
The pain as the metal pressed against her clavicle and cut into her shoulders was tremendous, but at least it was not life-threatening. She wrapped her arms around the chain, too, steadying the inevitable pendular swinging induced by her acrobatics. She could not afford to lose her grip and fall; the sudden jerk would snap her neck as surely as a lictor’s noose.
Her head began to throb viciously from the sudden rush of blood, but she ignored it. She knew that she could tolerate that sort of pain for a long time. Was she not Pemburu Pertana of the Suku Macan? The hunter who, when her woman's blood had come upon her, had been given the name Mata Elang, ‘Eyes of the Hawk’, in honour of her far vision, and her skill with the tombak luas? Had she not met all of the challenges ever demanded of a chieftess of the Leopard Clan, and surpassed them all? She stood first among the warriors of her people. She was strong, and she was patient. She would endure.
The blackhair had no idea what he had caught. In time, if fortune and the Forest Mother smiled upon her, she would show him.
Hanging there in the darkness, consumed by thoughts of vengeance, she began to lose track of time. In an attempt to distract herself from the precarious discomfort of her situation, she concentrated on replaying in her mind the memories of the clan’s winter migration: south out of the iron mountains in the land of men, where the Companion of her younger sister Apstrasys had fallen to a great bear that had succumbed to madness; south along the Star-River, then west through the great plains and the man-lands of Red River; across the broken foothills to the great wasteland, and the hardest part of the biannual journey: twenty terrible suns, sleeping through the day and riding through the night, eschewing the coastline for fear of encountering the tall horses of the white-coat humans and their terrible, elf-hating riders. There had been no white-coats when she was a girl; she would have remembered them. But they lived there, now, in the grim, white-walled city by the sea.
Years before, some of the hunters of the people had approached that city. None had ever returned. The Suku Macan - and the other clans that followed similar routes - gave it a wide berth now.
After the white city, they had ridden out of the wastes and into the Homelands at last, passing inland of the bustling city of Starport; through the mountain passes, and down along the south coast; comfortable now, happy to be back among the lush grasses, the great trees, basking in the intimate caress of kesatuan. It was still stronger here, in the Homelands, than anywhere else on earth, even if the blackhairs no longer seemed to feel it.
Riding, riding day and night, to the southernmost coasts near the blackhair city known as ‘Water Bearer’, where the pipe-trees grew tall and strong.
She should have been with them. The new hunters, who had proven themselves on the southwards journey, would pause there, taking - reverently, always reverently - the youngest, strongest and straightest of the trees to make their first tombak. There, too, the people would have used driftwood to repair the rafts they had abandoned the previous spring. They would launch them on a calm evening, and, setting sails woven of beaten long-grass, and navigating by the stars that had guided their ancestors for scores of generations, sail across the straits to their wintering grounds - the sweetest of the sweet lands, Manis Madu. The place where the Dolphin Folk live. The place that the blackhairs called ‘Eldisle’.
I should have been with them. For the first time in nearly a century, she had missed the last leg of her clan’s journey. As the folk had trekked southwards, passing through the neck of the peninsula between the great port-cities of Sinaustrinus and Novaposticum, the woman and her companion, Perkasa Macan, had left the migration for a day and a night. They had been a-hunt, and their path had taken them toward the latter place, following the trail of an enormous elk, hoping to bring it down and return with a vast bounty of meat. Instead of the elk, she had fallen afoul of a party of blackhairs. They had used their foul magic against her, and she had been lost in darkness.
She had awoken in an iron cage, her companion nowhere to be found. She had sent her thoughts wandering, seeking for Perkasa, but had been able to touch nothing. Her jailers had tried to assail her, too; as a woman of the clans, she knew of the blackhairs' liking for her kind both from stories, and from her captors' lewd comments. But they ceased trying after the first of their number entered the cage. She had loosed the jiwa macan, tearing out his throat and disembowelling him before his horrified companions could intervene.
Was she not Pemburu Pertana? No man had ever touched her without her consent - certainly not one of the craven, corrupted blackhairs, stinking of perfume and lust and the muck of the cities. That act of defiance had earned her a vicious beating, and another dose of whatever foul magic had been used to subdue her in the first place. It had been worth it.
When next she awoke, she was in one of those cities; she could feel it, pressing in around her like a shroud; like a blanket of clay and poison, cutting off the wind, the sun; severing the precious, life-giving link to the green that sustained her. It was suffocating. She had begun to perspire immediately. Terror leached from her pores like sin.
The room had been made of stone, cold and dead; full of ridiculous furnishings, and stinking of burning wood, sweat, scent, lust and fear. There had been two others in the room with her: two of the bersaudara, the lost sisters, children of the Tribes torn from their parents by slavers; removed from kesatuan at so youthful an age that they resembled the wilder folk only physically. She had demanded that they name themselves, and they had given her only the names assigned them by their blackhair captors. They had not even known their tribe! She thought they might have been born Tanduk, maybe Jerapah, but she could not be certain. They had been so debased by their long association with the blackhairs! It was sad, and more than sad. It was infuriating.
In any case, neither had had any of the Blood about them. They were truly pathetic specimens. But at least they had remembered enough of their origin to recognize her for what she was, and had shown her proper deference. Even as children, they must have been taught what Pemburu Pertana meant. Perhaps there was hope for them yet.
The bersaudara had been kneeling at her feet, appropriately begging her blessing and her protection, when her jailer had arrived to view his new acquisition. She had acted without thinking; the jiwa had arisen instantly within her, and she had surrendered to its furious outrage in a frenzy of fangs and bloodletting. But this blackhair had been prepared; he had brought along a companion, one who used magic on her again, and the blackness fell and took her. When she had recovered from this third encounter with the arcane arts, she was chained.
Thus had begun her month-long nightmare of captivity, pain, filth, and dishonour. It had led to her bloody dispatch of the first of her assailants, and to the revolting, mind-numbed touch of those who followed him. The third of these – a comely, well-made blackhair - had reeked of musk, attar and civilization. But he had been tall and strong, a magnificent example of his race. In other circumstances, she might have been able to put aside her distaste. But appearances were deceiving; he had been the worst, interspersing his frenzied, brutal coupling with blows and shouted imprecations. By the time his lusts had been sated, she had been bruised, bloody and all but unconscious. Her jailer had been furious at being forced to summon a priest to heal her wounds. But very quietly furious, she had noted; her tormentor, it seemed, was an important man. And he had paid well.
In response to her captor's recriminations, the handsome blackhair had merely laughed, and had offered to buy her outright. She remembered feeling, even through the deadening press of the volition-stealing magic, a rush of relief when her captor refused the sale.
The handsome blackhair had left, and she had not seen him since. But she remembered his scent. She swore that before her body returned to the green and her spirit to the unity of the forest, she would find him. And when she found him, she would open his throat with her teeth, spill his blood, and leave his meat to rot by the wayside.
Now, hanging upside-down in her bonds, she shook with fatigue and rage. How much longer would she have to endure this? She did not fear death, for death was the constant companion of every member of the folk, the hunters especially. Death was an old and intimate friend. No, what she feared was dying in this horrid place - apart from kesatuan, where her body would not return to the Forest Mother's bosom or her jiwa to the unity; where she would be trapped by cut stones and dead wood, a grey, moaning spirit forever banished from her folk, unable to join with, nourish and guide her clan. The horror of such an ending consumed her thoughts.
Perversely, it also helped her to endure.
She was roused from her reverie by a sudden scraping noise – soft, almost imperceptible. Her eyes flew open, and she twisted her chain so that she could see the door. A shadow, then a whiskered visage, appeared against the light from the hallway, and she bared her teeth in a savage grin. She had been prepared for this moment for a ten-day, at least. Gathering her wits and feeling for the few strands of the flux that she could touch in that dark place, she waited.
The rat poked its nose under the door, drawn by the overwhelming, fantastic scent of fresh blood. The cell reeked of it, and the tiny creature gloried in the magnificent stink. It was intoxicating, but it was not enough to entice her to throw caution to the winds. A previous occupant of this chamber had been left to starve by the building’s owner, to the point that rats had seemed a delicacy. The rat had only just won that race.
Curiosity was fine, particularly when things smelled so good. Just so long as curiosity was leavened with a hefty dose of caution. The cell seemed silent, save for the harsh, rasping breaths of the two-leg hanging from the ceiling. The rat ventured forward.
<Good evening, little sister.>
The rat froze and looked around. The words had sounded in its mind as clear and white-hot as skyfire. <Who speaks?> the tiny creature asked.
The rapid, high-pitched chittering wafted upwards, resolving into clear words in the woman's mind. <Look up,> she replied, trying to send calming, friendly sentiments along with the words.
The diminutive rodent did so. Its beady, black-spot eyes widened. <Why do you hang from the sky, two-leg?> it asked.
The woman – head-down, gasping for breath, and barely conscious – grinned at the astonishment in the animal’s voice. It was the first time in more than two months that she had smiled. <I am a prisoner, little sister,> she replied.
The rat skittered closer. It placed its forepaws on the sailor's body. <Is this your kill, First Hunter?> it asked.
<Yes,> she replied, astonished. <But how did you know who...>
<...who you are?> the rat sounded amused. <What child of Hutanibu would not know the First Hunter of the Leopard Clan?>
To her further amazement, the rat seemed to duck its head in what could only be a bow. <How can I assist you, hunter?> it said.
<I beg your aid in seeking my freedom,> she replied.
<Your bonds are made of coldstone,> the creature replied, sounding dubious. <I can smell it. It would take my whole family a season to gnaw through them.>
The woman snorted in amusement, impressed by the creature’s understanding of her plight. <I thank you for your offer, but that is not what I ask,> she said. <The dead two-leg near you…he may have something in his clothing that I can use to free myself. A knife, perhaps, or an awl. A long, slender piece of coldstone, of any sort. Would you try to find it for me?>
<What is ‘clothing’?> the creature asked, sounding puzzled.
She rolled her eyes. <The extra hides it wears outside of its own.>
<Ah. And if I do,> the rat replied, sounding for all the world like a calculating merchant, <may I beg two boons?>
<Ask,> she said immediately.
<First, swear that neither you, nor the Clan that you lead, will ever again hunt my kind.>
The woman smiled. Rats were definitely not one of the prey preferred by the Suku Macan. <Done,> she swore. <And second?>
The rat sounded more hesitant now. <Hunter, my litter is hungry. May I keep a small part of your kill?>
<Little sister,> she said firmly, <you may keep all of it. Please hurry.>
The rat immediately attacked the human’s corpse, burrowing into the blood-drenched garments with happy enthusiasm. If she didn't know better, she would have thought that the tiny creature was elated at having out-negotiated a woman of the Clans.
Spots flaring behind her eyelids, she held grimly to the chain, trying to maintain her precarious balance as her newfound friend scampered and searched. She tried to distract herself by counting, but without success. She was consumed by the fear that the rat might find something useful, but that her captor would return to loosen the chain before she could free herself. Or that the tiny creature’s search would take too long; the enchantment that allowed her to converse with the rat lasted only a short while, and she could not use it again until the morrow.
Time stretched out into a hazy, copper-stinking eternity. At last though, the rat emerged from the human’s sticky, blood-soaked tunic with something in its jaws. It scampered towards her and deposited the object on the floor. <Will this serve?> it asked.
Gritting her teeth, she stared downwards, but couldn’t make the object out. <I do not know, little sister. But I thank you. We shall try it.> Moving cautiously, she took a tight grip on the collar, unbent her cramped knees from the chain, and flipped right-side-up again. The shock nearly overwhelmed her strained muscles. Her head whirled as the blood rushed away from it, and she gasped as the collar dug into the flesh beneath her jaw; but at least her neck was safe.
The rat, taking the initiative, retrieved its find and scampered up her leg, digging its tiny claws into her mottled skin for purchase. The woman, blinded by pain and lack of air, barely noticed the discomfort. Reaching her neck, the creature nuzzled her hand. Carefully, so as not to dislodge either her benefactor or its potentially precious cargo, she groped with her fingers, sighing in relief as she wrapped them around what felt like a long, slender iron nail.
Sliding it back and forth between her fingers, she felt for its size and shape. It was long, narrow as a needle, with some sort of eye on one end, and a back-curved double-point on the other. A fishing hook? she wondered. No matter. Perhaps it would do.
She could not know, for she had never seen one, that fate had at last granted her a dram of fortune. The object was a twine-hook – a device used by seine-fishermen to repair their nets, or to splice ropes together. Morusa had carried one his entire life. All the woman knew or cared was that, after a long minute of careful manoeuvring, the thing fit into the key-hole at the back of her neck.
Time stretched out as she fumbled with the mechanism. She was not an expert; she was not even proficient. But she was clever and nimble, and had at least some experience with locks. Time and again she twitched and fumbled at the tumblers, taking extra care not to drop the precious iron needle. The rat clambered up her braids and sat atop her head, courteously staying out of her way.
When the lock opened at last, she was so surprised that she fell heavily to the floor. The needle tinkled away into the darkness, and the rat scampered for safety. When she had recovered her breath, she whispered, “Farewell, and thank you, little sister.”
The words came in normal speech; the spell had ended.
Kneeling on the cold, blood-slicked stone, she chafed life and warmth back into her limbs. Her neck was stiff and badly scraped, and she knew that the bruising would be terrific; but other than that, she was whole and well. Crawling over to the human’s body, she searched it thoroughly, hoping for some sort of weapon, but finding only miscellaneous odds and ends about the dead man’s person. No matter. It was not as if she really needed weapons, after all.
She patted her palms against the floor, ignoring the tacky blood until she had located the iron needle again. Leaping to the door, she tried it on the locks. It proved to be too small to reach the heavier door tumblers. Even if it had been large enough, it would not have enabled her to move the heavy iron bolt that, she knew, lay on the other side of the stone.
Escape was impossible. The only alternative was ambush. She would have to wait until…
She froze, listening. Footsteps.
The woman smiled, baring her teeth. After so very long, it seemed that fortune had decided to smile upon her once again.
Ruttik was enjoying a moment of post-coital reflection, idly contemplating the elaborate cut-glass chandelier depending from the peaked roof of his second-story bedchamber, and running through plans for spending the contents of his late friend’s purse, when the creak of an ill-tended hinge and the tinkle of silver bells informed him that someone had opened his door. His maid, no doubt, coming in with hot towels and chilled wine, per his standing instructions.
He was too spent to bother with either at present. “Not now, Alasta,” he groaned.
There was no response.
Still nothing. Wondering if the wind had blown the door open, he clambered over the supine, snoring forms of the two torvae upon whose supple flesh he had only recently been exercising himself. Seeing the girl in the cellar had whetted his appetite, and upon repairing to his study, he had decided to take a run at Pemburu's less wild cousins. He’d passed the subsequent hour most enjoyably. Presumably the girls, both of whom were now asleep (or at least feigning it reasonably convincingly), felt the same. But he didn't really care.
Before parting the thin curtains surrounding his enormous, thickly-stuffed stragulum, Ruttik shouldered his way into his robe. Spring was about to begin in the south, and the stingflies had begun to make their presence known again. Secure beneath the embroidered, scented silk, he parted the curtains and stood up, calling for his maid again. “Alast -”
Something struck him in the chest like a blow from a giant’s sledge, driving the breath from his lungs and slamming him back onto the bed. The attacker followed, flowing after him like liquid midnight, landing atop him and crushing him into the blanket-strewn mess. Blood spurted from long gashes in his skin, staining his gown with scarlet runnels.
Roused by the tumult, the two girls woke shrieking. The newcomer whirled at them, growling “Diminta diam!”
The girls clamped their mouths shut. Eyes downcast, they scuttled to the foot of the bed…and, as one, put their heads to the floorboards. “Pemburu Pertana,” said one of them in a quivering voice, “kasihanilah. Silakahn!”
The shadowed shape of Ruttik’s attacker regarded the pair in silence for a long moment while they quivered in fear. Then it nodded. “Kembali ke hutan, putiri. Dan, belajar siapa anda!”
“Kami akan,” the girl whispered. The pair bowed again. Then they fled, out the door and down the hall.
The shadowy figure then turned its bright yellow eyes to Ruttik, gasping beneath its weight. “Now, blackhair,” the woman hissed. She spoke in the elven tongue, her accent thick and liquid. “Now. Only you, and me.”
“I have money,” Ruttik said quickly, coughing. “A great deal of money.” Struggling weakly, he reached toward his pillows, beneath which he had secreted Morusa’s purse. As well as something else.
“Money I not care, pig. Money is not honour,” the woman whispered. “Hunter honour is blood. Only blood.”
“I quite agree,” Ruttik replied. His fingers had found what they sought. Faster than thought, he pulled the dagger from beneath his pillow and buried it in his assailant’s side.
Or at least, he tried to. With a hissing growl, the woman jerked back out of his way, receiving a shallow cut across her midriff rather than the disembowelling strike he had intended. The sudden lunge brought his assailant into a shaft of moonlight, and he drew back in sudden alarm. It was her, the one called Pemburu, as he had heard the two torva girls greet her. But it was Pemburu as he had seen her after Morusa's death: fanged, clawed, her tattoos dark and menacing, her eyes glowing points of yellow fire.
The woman snarled at the stinging pain of the cut across her belly, but did not deign to glance at the wound. Instead, she stalked her quarry, baring her fangs in a rictus of rage, sidling to her left, circling the blackhair kneeling amid the tangle of bedding, clutching his tiny dagger as though it were a lifeline.
He lunged forward, stabbing at her with the blade. Instead of rearing back again, she leapt to the side, lashing out with her claws and feeling them tear into his forearm. He screamed again. The dagger spun away, clattering on the floor.
Ruttik, for all his faults, was no coward; he jumped clumsily after it. The instant he presented his flank, the woman leapt. She aimed for his throat, but only managed to sink her fangs into his shoulder. The sharp, needle-pointed incisors sheared through the flimsy material of his robe and tore into his skin. Ruttik yelled in pain; and the yell turned into a shriek of agony as the woman, anchored by her teeth, dug her fore- and hind-claws into his flesh and raked them downward, peeling long ribbons of shredded silk and flesh from his spine.
The pain was excruciating. The elf collapsed to the floor of his bedchamber, screaming and thrashing feebly. Blood spurted; scarlet stains spread across his robe, the costly carpets, the polished wood. He threw himself away from her, rolling to his wounded back, drawing his knees up to protect his vitals.
Low and feline, the woman slunk toward her quarry, eyeing him from head to foot as if trying to decide where to strike next. Her claws shot towards his throat and dug into the soft flesh beneath his jaw.
Ruttik wailed in fear, throwing up his hands in surrender. "Misericordia, domina!" he moaned.
"Tak kenal belas kasihan," she snarled, "menerima apa!"
"I don't understand!" he shrieked.
The woman's fangs gleamed white in the lamplight. "Show no mercy," she hissed, "taste none."
"No, blackhair. No surrender. I tell you before, sina olet liha olla tuhlattu! Your meat, I waste!"
Ruttik was not done; he had not lived so long in a lethal trade without being prepared for every eventuality. With a last, desperate heave, he shoved her hand away from his throat, grasped it in his own, and to her astonishment, sank his teeth into her wrist.
Almost contemptuously, she yanked her arm out of his feeble grasp. "Small bite, blackhair. City rat, with rat teeth," she laughed harshly. "You -"
She staggered and almost fell. Something was wrong; her vision blurred suddenly, and she felt weak and sick. Worst of all, her vision had dimmed, and her claws and teeth, to her horror, had shrunk back to their normal proportions.
As she staggered unsteadily about the room, Ruttik climbed to his feet, feeling under his jaw to see how badly she had wounded him. "Surprised?" he asked. He pried his lip back and tapped a gilt tooth set into his upper jaw. "Poison. One of the little tricks we 'city rats' like to keep handy."
He pulled the spent toothcap out and tossed it away, spitting to clear his mouth. Grimacing at the pain of his wounds, he stepped lightly off the bed and went to retrieve his dagger. The woman lunged after him, but stumbled and had to catch herself against a bedpost as the room whirled around her.
"You might consider running," the elf said conversationally, picking the long knife up and testing the point with a fingertip. "The venom doesn't kill you, you see; it just drains the life from your limbs, and leaves you limp and gasping on the ground. I only have to wait for you to fall.
"And then..." he held the knife up "...it’s play time."
He grinned nastily. "You can't imagine all the things I'm going to do to you."
She staggered again and fell to her knees. Ruttik laughed and stood over her. "See? Not such a wild animal after all. Maybe I should have tried this after you slaughtered poor Morusa like a Twelve-Day hog. Payment in kind, as it were, for killing one of my cust -"
Without warning, the woman launched a kick, feeling the shock as her heel struck home against the elf's kneecap. Ruttik shrieked anew as the bone cracked and his leg crumpled beneath him. His dagger clattered to the floor once again.
This time it was the woman who snatched it up. With all of her remaining strength, she drove it through his chest. The only sound he made was a surprised gasp as the sharp point bit into the wood beneath him, pinning him to the floorboards.
She couldn't wait to make certain of him; his screams had been loud enough to be heard a long way off. Others would be coming, and she was failing rapidly. Time was against her; already her cheeks were numb, her arms and legs growing cold. There were others...others, who must feel her fangs...
Summoning the last remaining fragments of her will, she stumbled toward a blessedly open window, hurled herself through it, and plummeted senseless into the night.