Blame, guilt and a warm fire
The sound of steel on stone shook the narrow laneway where the two brothers lay in hiding. Voices, dark growls threatening death and a most certain bloody end, roared in Roedanth’s ears. The hand clamped over Peetra’s mouth trembled, partly in fear, but mostly in worry. There would be no going anywhere now, not with half the city guard after them.
“Peetra, why did you do it?” It was a shaken whisper into the still ear of his only brother. “We had it all, a roof over our heads, two meals a day, and I was learning a trade. Why, Peetra?”
Blood stained his hands; it had soaked through to his under garments and the sticky feeling of Peetra’s life on his skin made him feel sick. Roedanth shifted, the damp, coarse stone against his back a chafing reminder that they were up to their necks in shit. Peetra groaned, the sound escaping from in between Roedanth’s fingers. Startled, Roedanth wriggled again, pulling his brother in closer and the bolt in Peetra’s breast thrummed.
“By the stars, I’m sorry, Peetra. I didn’t mean it.” More whispering, but this time Roedanth stroked and smoothed out his brother’s sweat-soaked hair. “You’re burning up.”
The voices were closer now; two in particular set his heart racing.
“I told you Sam, the old woman pointed down this-a-ways.” A Tolerian slur marked the man as a mercenary; half the city guards were mercenaries, paid for by the taxes collected by the current King of Crow’s Nest.
“So you’ll take the word of an old woman instead of a warm fire and a mug of beer,” grumbled the other.
Roedanth could almost hear the sulk in the man’s voice. It was cruel, and he once again felt the pang of guilt. The Tolerian grunted, but whether it was in agreement with his companion’s remark or from the veracity of his own duty the boy didn’t know. What he did know was that Mr. Bicky lay dead and Peetra dying. Who would believe him? Those two men with their hard eyes and hungry swords? Not likely. There were no friends in the city guard. The lengthening shadows were a friend though – they created deeper, darker corners to hide in.
The guards were almost upon them now. The sulky one, obviously bored with the chase whistled out to a woman, her large tits strained against the cheap cloth of her garish, far too small dress. She called back, a drunken invitation that promised more than just a passing fondle.
“Now, what I wouldn’t give to spend five minutes with the likes of that,” crooned the sulky one.
Again the Tolerian grunted. “Listen, the quicker we find these murdering bastards, the more time you’ll have in wetting that wick you so fondly talk about all the time.”
Harlots and thieves occupied the lower levels of Crow’s Nest, gracing The Seed with their filthy company. It was a dangerous place to those not guilded. The setting of the sun usually sorted out the fools from the foolhardy. The two guards were almost on top of them. The damp air didn’t disguise the rank smell of unwashed bodies, stale spirits and for the most alarming part, irritation. The Tolerian hawked a large glob of phlegm; it arced over the barrels the lads were hiding behind. Startled, Roedanth moved his hand higher, covering Peetra’s mouth and nose. The terrified young man squeezed tighter. It would be the Seven Hells for them both after what his brother had done; there could be no forgiveness to murder.
“One of them took a bolt. I saw Skinny Nose loose one into the smaller youngling. He never misses.” In after-thought, the Tolerian hawked again. “The bastard.”
More noise, steady footsteps, unhurried and oddly familiar, were coming their way. Both guards turned; the scraping of their heavy steel boots clunked on the stone laneway as they met the new stranger.
“Who’s this then?” Not too friendly, but friendly enough to stop the approaching man. An eerie yellow light crept closer, dispelling some of the surrounding shadows that harboured the pair.
An old voice cracked with age called out. “Just the Bearer. I light the way for the souls who need the light at night. I carry the fire. I am its keeper.”
“Well and good, old man. Maybe a bit of light might help us catch the murdering pair,” spoke the local.
“It might indeed, good sir. Poor Mr. Bicky. I heard he was a good man, mostly that is. There are some around these parts, though, that held the rough side of their tongue for him.” In a low voice, meant only for the two guards, the Bearer leant in. “I heard that he had a fondness, you know – for the little ones.”
“What do you mean, little ones, old man?” Curiosity tinged the question.
The old man looked up the laneway and frowned, then back to the questioning guard. “You ain’t ‘eard it from me, but I knows a woman whose husband drinks at the Brown Jug and he said that he likes the boys. He likes em young you know.”
“Disgusting…” spat the Tolerian.
Roedanth’s’ eyes welled. He’d been such a fool not to have realised. As he leant his head against the stone, closing his eyes to stop the tears, the memory seared fresh wounds into his already bleeding heart. Peetra huddled on his cot, knees drawn up to his chin – his eyes red rimmed as he mutely shook his head, refusing to talk – Mr. Bicky rubbing at his crotch, whenever Peetra found the nerve to visit his brother in the workshop or around the furnaces – Jolein sniggering at the fat man’s leering face.
How could he have not seen it? Perhaps his gratefulness at being given a home for himself and his brother, the high luck on being accepted as a Copper apprentice had blinded the truth. Perhaps it wasn’t his talent for the precious metal that had attracted Mr. Bicky after all. Roedanth unconsciously tightened his grip on his younger brother’s face. Anger and grief rose up, sharp as a knife, as he realised it was Peetra who his master had wanted.
The voices were further away now, fading off into the coming night as they disappeared down the laneway. The old man had moved on, taking the brighter light with him. The guards, satisfied that their search was at an end, followed the Bearer. Once again they were alone. There was of course the beginning of a rowdy night brewing, taverns and brothels all getting into the swing of business – but for the moment, they were alone. Trade for the pickpocket guild had not yet begun; the city guards still walked the streets and the locals, still finishing off their day’s trade, were indoors. It would be a little while yet before the streets and laneways became a bustling mess. The muggings and murders carried out tonight would be left untouched. After all, who cared about the lower levels anyway?
Mr. Bicky, though, he was another matter. To the everyday world he was a respected man, a wealthy man, loyal to the King and Crown. He paid his taxes, always on time, and even donated a heavy purse each month to the Biscop’s House – as if paying his way would open the gates to a heavenly afterlife. What he did behind closed doors and in the seedy shade of his own home was endured – even tolerated. No one ever spoke ill of Mr. Bicky, at least not where he sure of it.
He let out an exhausted breath and eased the pressure from Peetra’s face. The blood had dried on his skin, on his brother’s clothes, on the weathered flagstones below. So much blood. So much guilt. Peetra slumped to the ground and for the briefest of moments, Roedanth left him to peer over the barrels. Left, then right and left again, the flickering light from the iron standard allowed him to see a little way beyond. It wouldn’t be long before the night trade filled the streets, then it would be safe. He would hide his brother and fetch a healer. The money he had saved was well hidden, tucked up tight behind one of the furnaces. Even Jolein wouldn’t look there. That pox-faced snoop took everything, especially things that weren’t his. It had taken Roedanth a black eye and the loss of his first month’s wages to learn that Jolein was Mr. Bicky’s eyes and ears in the workshop. He was never wrong. Yes, he had learnt the hard way.
Turning back to Peetra, Roedanth bent down to inspect his brother’s wounds. “Peetra, wake up, wake up.” Gently he eased the cooling body back into his arms. He stroked his brother’s hair again. “Your fever’s gone; you’re going to be alright Peetra. Wake up, brother.”
Silence. His stillness was alarming. Laying a slim finger against the side of his brother’s neck, Roedanth felt for a pulse. Even the faintest sign of life would be worth a bucket of hope. A flicker of an eyelid to stop the rising guilt, drool or snot to coax a smile, but there it was. Nothing, no life, no hope for a miracle, for it had died under his hand. In the fear of being caught, Roedanth had suffocated any chance of securing salvation for either of them. Peetra was dead – and the panic, freshly awoken, was brimming with trembling nerves and sweaty palms, and now gave way to tears. Silent drops splashed onto the blue tinged flesh around his brother’s mouth and eyes. Lost was his only family; there was no one left, there was nothing.
Holding his brother’s hand, Roedanth stared numbly as he watched the last of the shadows disappear under the rise of the Pata Batu. Soon the darkness would conceal his dash, the one that would save him. It would be a relief to put it all to rest. Truly, a kindness in a sick guilty way, to end a fat man’s depravity, no matter what the cost. But not all endings come with a happy promise. For Roedanth, this would be the case. From here on, all would pale in comparison to what was to come.
Jolien stood over his employer’s body and with grim satisfaction made a mental note of everything in the room. It would all be his, just as soon as he could arrange a cart from the Biscop’s House to collect the ripening corpse. He would catch the shutters and lock the door. It was a pity that the other one – ah, what was his name? Yes, the other apprentice – Jac. He was still at the Sanctum. They had first thought him ill, the kind you get when you’re feeling more than poorly. But that hadn’t been the case; Mr. Bicky had said just a few weeks ago that Jac had got the Calling. He’d not be coming back and a good thing, too, because now Jolein would never have to share.
“Good riddance to the little prick and I hope the other two burn in the Seven Hells,” Jolien muttered. This was said to no one in particular for he was alone, but it felt better saying the words out loud, over the dead body. Mr. Bicky, a white needle dicked nonce whose taste in small boys had ultimately led him to a cold grave. As sick as the fat man was, Jolien had liked him in his own way. Despite all the leering. The Master had been an exceptional Coppersmith, and now that he was dead, Jolien would have to try and hold the business together himself.
He would not have believed such a thing if he had not heard it from Mr. Bicky’s own lips. The Calling comes to each in its own way. Kind for some but not for others, Jac would most certainly be sent away, to where, he didn’t know but still, good riddance. All the more for his empty pockets, and at the end of the day, the Coppersmith shop would be Jolein’s. He knew that Mr. Bicky had a Will; it was a piece of yellow parchment, finely written and kept with the lawyers, Marches and Bearers. He had been with the Master the longest, so it was only right that he should take on the business and everything it owned.
“Are you done with your goodbyes?” The Biscop’s cleric stood at the door, his saffron robe hanging loosely on his thin body. His bald head caught the last glint of sunlight as it fell away to the darkening sky. It gave the man a holy look, and Jolien stepped away from Mr. Bicky’s dead body as though it was a thing to be feared.
“Yes, yes, of course I am finished. It was only right that I said my goodbyes, especially after what has happened. He was a good man, a kind man, and to think that those two murdering bastards…” He had the decency to look abashed. “I am sorry, your Holiness. I didn’t mean to blaspheme, but I can’t help but get angry just thinking about what they did.”
As the cleric stepped up to the lanky lad, a sour smell wafted up Jolien’s nose, and again he felt sick, but the rich baritone voice and the well manicured hand which reached out officiously chilled him even further. Beside the holy-man, the pimply faced youth felt as tiny as a dobmouse, and to the church itself, he knew he was beyond recognition. But hell, what was there to lose? If he played his cards right the Biscop’s greedy needs would serve his own.
“Your Holiness, I would ask…What is being done about his killers?” Jolien softened his voice. To any other it would have sounded like a whine, but to the cleric, there was only the voice of a grieving lad.
Dark eyes probed Jolien’s watery ones. The cleric nodded. “Oh, you need not care, they’re being searched for and when they are found, the King will have his way. Do you know these men?” Jolien could feel the man’s heat. “Do you know where they might be now?”
The fuzzy hair on the apprentice’s lip quivered under the cleric’s scrutiny. It was well known that the Biscop’s House welcomed the death of sinners. Everyone knew that, that is everyone who had a mind to keep living.
“No, I don’t know where they are, but I wish I did. It was his apprentice who did this, him and his lusty brother. He was always jealous, wanting Mr. Bicky’s things for himself. He pushed his brother into my employer’s arms; he tried every charm and evil doing he could think of to get what he wanted.” Jolien watched from lowered eyes. The cleric’s face had reddened under the apprentice’s enlightenment, so he continued. “I just never thought he would resort to murdering the poor man. It’s a tragedy, that’s what it is, a terrible tragedy.” He even sniffed for the closing of his little speech.
The cleric bent over the stiffening corpse, the slight beginning of decay slowly wafting into the air around them. Jolien stepped back as far as he could respectfully go, for he was afraid that he would sick up if this discourse were to continue any longer. The Order scared him and rightly so – for the King’s ear and the Order’s purses were one and the same. The holy man straightened up, and Jolien thought he heard the man’s knees crack. Wincing, the apprentice grimanced in revulsion at the sound. The bald-headed cleric thinned his lips into a sour smile.
“Don’t worry, young master; you have nothing to fear from the Order. I am sure we can come to some agreement about securing your rightful place here. I will have the elders look at Mr. Bicky’s personals, and if this man was the good soul you proclaim him to be, I am sure we’ll have no problems.” The cleric’s voice was oily, without joy or truth in its telling.
Bowing his head, Jolien smirked into the folds of his smelly tunic. Time for some laundry I think after all I can’t front up to the Biscop wearing this old thing.